The Great Kiva
Chimney Rock’s Great Kiva is the largest excavated single-room structure on the High Mesa. According to dendrochronology (tree-ring dates), the Great Kiva was constructed or modified in A.D. 1084 or later.
No one knows how kivas were used a thousand years ago although many anthropologists assume kivas were used for ceremonial purposes. Some prehistoric kivas may not be ceremonial. Today, traditional Puebloans consider their religious beliefs sacred and private.
The word kiva is Hopi, meaning ceremonial house. To be designated a great kiva, the diameter must be 35 feet or more. Chimney Rock’s Great Kiva is nearly 44 feet across and has attributes that residential structures lack, including a banquette or bench-like structure, foot drums, a fire pit, and sub-floor cists (stone-lined vaults).
Chimney Rock’s Great Kiva appears to be a local variant of great kivas. Some distinctive, possibly local, elements include the short bench on the north wall with tapering ends and fourteen subfloor cists. At the time of excavation, nine of these storage pits had plank coverings. Possibly they once held ceremonial items.
While many kivas have a sipapu or entrance to the spirit world, none has been found in Chimney Rock’s Great Kiva. In fact, none of the three excavated kivas at Chimney Rock have a sipapu. As more sites are excavated throughout the Ancestral Puebloan world, sipapus appear erratically so the missing sipapu is no longer considered an oddity.
It is a mystery as to whether or not the Great Kiva had a roof. Only one post-hole for a vertical roof support system was found. If it was roofed, the kiva would have had a crib roof which could stand without being supported by posts or columns.
The Pit House
Chimney Rock’s Pit House is similar in architectural style to the other residences within the High Mesa cluster. The wood from this house dates its construction to 1077 A.D. The Pit House contained typical household tools such as manos, ax heads, anvils, polishing stones, drills, food storage jars, and serving pots. However, the overall assemblage of tools is atypical.
Of paramount importance are four clay prayer plume holders. These are considered ceremonial or ritual items and they are the definitive artifact found at Chimney Rock. Other examples of these prayer plume holders have been found at Wallace Ruins and Chaco Canyon. Analysis of the clay used indicates, of the seventeen prayer plume holders found at Ancestral Puebloan sites, eleven are from Chimney Rock. Many of these ritual artifacts were found in pit houses rather than kivas. This may indicate specialized use of the pit houses.
On the north side of the Pit House are three work rooms. Just how these workrooms were roofed or entered is not known. The typical Ancestral Puebloan architectural trait has the workrooms located on the north side of the residence.
The northeastern workroom contained manos and metates for food processing. The middle room contained hammer stones, cores, and other stone tools. It probably served as a lithic workroom. Tool use-wear analysis suggests these tools were used for vegetable and hide processing. The northwestern room contained large cooking pots, fairly intact, that held the remains of corn, beans, and wild edible seeds. A plank-covered sub-floor storage basin also contained charred corn.
Among the pit houses excavated in the Ancestral Puebloan world, the form of Chimney Rock’s pithouses is unique. It is a local type, used by area residents, with most examples located on the mesa top.
While we call this a pit house, it can also be referred to as an above-the-ground pit house since it sits on Chimney Rock’s bedrock. The floor was originally plastered with clay similar to that used in the Great Kiva. Some red and white mineral paint was found in the adobe plaster on the inside wall indicating the interior walls were once painted. Four shallow holes in the floor near the fire pit contained sand, possibly to support round-bottomed cooking pots. A ventilator shaft allowed air to enter the room at floor level to help the occupants breathe and support the cooking/heating fire.
In the mid-1980s, efforts to stabilize and display the well-preserved interior bench and jacal (adobe and wood branch) retaining wall of the excavated Pit House failed, resulting in the almost complete loss of this feature. What remains today is protected by backfill. The Visitor Cabin features a model of how this Pit House may have looked.
The Stone Circle
Many pecked stone basins have been found within Chaco Canyon and the Four Corners area. These basins take multiple forms (e.g., circular and square) and come in different sizes. Chimney Rock’s Stone Circle is a cultural indicator of ties to Chaco Canyon. The first archaeologist to visit and report on the Chimney Rock site found the remains of a rock wall surrounding the basin. This site is a Chacoan structure with analogous sites throughout the Four Corners area.
Chimney Rock’s Stone Circle originally may have served as a place to observe astronomical events in the sky. When standing behind the basin and looking along the north wall of the Great House Pueblo, you can see the summer solstice sun rise above the wall. In A.D. 1054, from the basin area, the Crab Nebula Supernova appeared above what is now the edge of the south wall of the Great House.
The Supernova was the third brightest star in the sky, exceeded only by the sun and the moon. It rose initially in 1054, right before the sun rose, and remained visible for almost three weeks during daylight hours, and for about two years at night. It must have shocked viewers who had no prior knowledge of its coming and must have held incredible significance to this astronomy-focused culture. Astronomers or skywatchers at the Stone Basin may have marked the location of the Taurus Supernova star rise with a rock cairn or other structure. When the Great House was constructed, this cairn may have been used to establish the position of the southern wall.
The Salvage Site
Located along the road, this structure is not included in standard tours. It has been largely backfilled.
This was a multi-room, masonry-walled building containing two large circular rooms, a large number of small round rooms, and a ramada on the northwest corner. The multiple large rooms suggest the residents practiced an extended family culture. At the Salvage Site, the masonry walls went all the way to the roof and supported it. Even though wood dated the structure to A.D. 925, making it about 150 years older than the Pit House and the oldest structure excavated at the Monument, there were no jacal (stick and mud) walls. Three feather holders, similar to those found at the Pit House, were found at the Salvage Site.
The Sun Tower
The Sun Tower was initially described as a possible tower by Dr. Frank W. Eddy, recently retired professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder. However, observed characteristics raised doubts that the tower is anything more than a small house complex. Under the assumption that the structure was a tower, Dr. J. McKim Malville, professor of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, states in Chimney Rock: The Ultimate Outlier that it is located at the highest point of the eastern cliffs of the mesa and is the only tower on the mesa. From the Sun Tower site, sky watchers could view the sunrise as it progressed along the jagged mountain peaks on the horizon between summer and winter solstice, unobstructed by the stone pillars. Based on his observations at the time, Eddy suggested the tower was three meters in height “and may have been built to mark a back-sight for summer solstice sunrise and/or to facilitate communication with the Great House Pueblo.”
Participants in CRIA’s summer solstice programs will see the sun rise in “a distinct depression that is exactly at the junction of the near and distant horizon (Malville).” The structure was built at such a location that, at the time of winter solstice, the sun is seen rising over a prominence to the east. Observers at the Stone Circle on winter solstice will see the sun rise over the Sun Tower site.
The Ridge House
The site near the parking lot represents an archaeological style separate from the residential pit houses and the ceremonial great house. The structure was not built all at once but rather grew over the years, possibly as the residential family grew. Although the rooms are round, as residential pit houses typically were, they are constructed entirely above-ground. While the structure had multiple rooms, it was not used for ceremonial purposes. Today it is possible to view multiple ventilation systems within this structure; it was apparently remodeled prehistorically.
This three-roomed residence shows the typical Chimney Rock architectural style of massive, unusually thick walls. The thick walls could have supported a second floor and also may have served to insulate the rooms during winter.
All six of the tree-ring samples recovered from this site were incomplete, making the tree-ring dating of the structure suspect. However, ceramics indicate it was occupied between A.D. 950 and A.D. 1125.
According to (suspect) tree-ring dates and architectural analysis, the eastern circular room (northeast in sketch map) was built first. It may have been built partially over an older structure. Then, (possibly) 128 years later, the other two circular rooms were built. Portions of the structure may have been two-storied as evidenced by the ladder-footing holes in the floors and the amount of left-over building rock. The two circular rooms appear to join or were built over other, older, curved-walled structures.
The masonry walls supported the roof. The two workrooms (along the top in the sketch) were apparently used in common. It is assumed structures like the Ridge House were residences for extended families.
Rooms A and B
These two rooms were the first sites excavated at Chimney Rock in 1921. After being excavated, the pit houses were neither stabilized nor backfilled. As a result, they are badly deteriorated. Their appearance today is a lesson in what happens to excavated structures when they are left unprotected. According to notes by Jean Allard Jeancon, curator of Archaeology and Ethnology in the 1920s at the Colorado State Historical and Natural History Society, the walls were laid of stone and the bedrock floor was smoothed and leveled with a layer of adobe. The dirt walls were not able to stand without masonry walls to keep them from collapsing. Significant finds within Rooms A and B include two clay feather holders, a water catchment groove on a flat rock, and evidence of paving along the north side of the structure.
The Guard House
The Guard House is an example of yet another Chimney Rock architectural style – a pit house structure enclosed by a masonry wall. Three other pit houses on the east rim are also enclosed by a masonry wall.
Despite its name, no one knows the purpose of the Guard House. Its location across the narrow causeway trail strongly hints at controlling access to the Great House. Any visitors to the Great House would have had to walk through the Guard House.
Because of its intriguing location and preservation challenges, the Guard House has been excavated three times. All excavations provided some artifacts, but nothing indicated a defensive function. The deteriorated condition of the structure precluded stabilization for public viewing.
The Great House Pueblo
Archaeological excavations at the Great House Pueblo were initiated in 1921 by Jeancon. At that time, he noted the walls were fourteen feet high in places and largely still standing. A few of the rooms were suspected of being two-storied and their roofs showed some stylized herringbone latilla patterns. Much of the original masonry could still be seen.
Wooden beams excavated at the Great House during the early 1920’s were burned for campfires. Potentially critical dendrochronology (tree-ring) dates and information were lost. When the Great Depression began in 1929, the excavated structures were left exposed, resulting in great loss of original structure and fabric.
When Eddy researched Chimney Rock Mesa during the summers of 1970-1972, he did not observe the same level of preservation as earlier researchers. One of Eddy’s main priorities was to obtain pottery and sherds for ceramic identification and wood beam samples for tree-ring dating. Based on a very limited number of dendrochronology samples collected by Eddy, it is believed the Great House Pueblo may have been built in two stages. One tree-ring date raises the possibility the first stage may have been around 1076 A.D. A single wood beam taken from the horizontal, sub-floor ventilator shaft in the East Kiva bore that tree-ring date. We don’t know how many years it took to complete construction of the Great House Pueblo.
The second proposed construction stage is better supported and dates to A.D. 1093 based on several tree-ring dates. These dates were taken from wooden roof beams during Eddy’s 1970-72 excavations in Room 8 of the Great House. Additional A.D. 1093 dates were found during the 2009 excavations. Eddy thinks the wood beam construction represents a re-modeling of the Great House Pueblo and, maybe at that time, the first introduction of the second story above the north side of the structure. Current researchers are unconvinced the Great House had a second story. The amount of stone fall seems insufficient for a second story. If there was a second story, it covered a limited portion of the structure.
Excavations during the 2009 field season (Lekson & Todd) recovered additional tree-ring dates. These dates include: A.D. 1070 , A.D. 1018, and A.D. 1011. Most of these dates coincide with major or minor lunar standstills. It is assumed these samples represent reused timbers that were already in the area. This may indicate that earlier structures/shrines were constructed by local populations commemorating these events as early as the early A.D. 1000s. It is still believed the Chimney Rock Great House was constructed during the late A.D. 1000s, by Chacoan architects. The northern expansion of Chaco occurred in the A.D. 1080s – 1090s.
The building contains at least 35 rooms and two kivas. Rather than two stories, it may be that the slope of the bedrock only made the upslope northern rooms appear taller, an illusion that could have been important prehistorically as well as misleading to researchers. Excavations outside of the Great House produced evidence of a southern plaza and a smaller elevated court yard on the east side.
Chimney Rock’s Great House Pueblo is of an architectural design called core and veneer, that is, an inside, one-stone-thick wall was built, a separate outside wall, also one-stone thick, was added, then the space between was filled with stone rubble and mud. Other structures are either compound or simple masonry. The floors were clay-leveled bedrock and the walls were adobe plastered inside and out. Interior walls may have been whitewashed.
The walls of Chimney Rock’s residence structures are thicker than almost all other known Four Corners area residence buildings. One theory is the walls were built thick because the residents stayed throughout the year. The thicker walls better retained interior heat in harsh winter weather. Maybe the residents stayed throughout the winter months because that is the season of the best moonrises between the twin stone spires during the Northern Major Lunar Standstill.
On the south side of the building are the East and West Kivas with adjacent storage rooms. Both of the round kivas were boxed in with a masonry wall and the void filled with dirt. This may simulate the kivas being subterranean while it also strengthened the walls.
The East Kiva roof was supported by eight timbers set upright on short horizontal timbers (called pilasters) built into the wall and supported by the bench. Jeancon and Frank H. H. Roberts, Jr., anthropologist from 1926 to 1964 at the Smithsonian Institution and principal excavator at Chimney Rock from 1921 to 1930, claimed the roof was flat. However, Eddy suggested, in 1974, that the roof may have been cribbed. The ventilator shaft in the wall extends under the floor before rising. There is evidence of a lower ventilation system, indicating the floor was raised during the use-life of the room.
The West Kiva appears smaller than the East Kiva, although it is actually the same size. The bench is much higher, and the walls probably supported a flat roof. The roof was probably flagged with sandstone.
Artifacts found within the Great House Pueblo include an abalone shell pendant, two turquoise ear pendants, a bird water jar, possible gambling dice (an oval piece of bone with a flat surface inter-crossed with incised black lines), a Grizzly Bear jaw, and several pottery jars and coiled baskets.