Report from the Field – Stephen H. Lekson

Chimney RockThe last three years saw the University of Colorado working at three very different Southwestern sites: Pinnacle Ruin, a Mesa Verde migration village in central New Mexico in 2008; Chimney Rock, a spectacular Chaco “outlier” in southwestern Colorado in 2009; and Black Mountain, a huge adobe pueblo possibly linking Mimbres and Casas Grandes in southernmost New Mexico in 2010.

Mesa VerdePinnacle Ruin sits atop a 100′ tall, sheer-sided butte near the remote headwaters of the Rio Alamosa, northwest of the small town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.  The area was famous as the homelands of the eastern Chiricahua Apache. In the 1880s, the rugged mountains around Pinnacle Ruin rang with battles and ambushes; eventually, the Chiricahua Apaches were driven out and exiled to Oklahoma.  Pinnacle Ruin represents a much earlier but equally dramatic chapter in southwestern history: the abandonment of the Mesa Verde region by Pueblo peoples in the late 13th century.  A sizable village of Mesa Verde people moved 250 miles south to establish a “colony” atop a defensible butte: Pinnacle Ruin.  In 2008, we completed the sixth and final season of work at the 200-room masonry pueblo.

Chimney Rock, soon to become a National Monument, is one of the most spectacular ruins in the Southwest.  In high pine forests west of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, the site sits atop a knife-edge ridge 1,000′ above the valley below, and next to two huge natural stone pillars.  Chimney Rock is a classic Chaco “outlier” – an outpost of the great 11th century regional center of Chaco Canyon, 90 miles away in northwest New Mexico.  Chimney Rock and Chaco were linked by an elaborate line-of-sight communication system, perhaps relaying news of astronomical events observed through the “sight” of the two pillars.  In 2009, the University of Colorado had an opportunity to excavate part of this remarkable site.

Mimbres Pottery

Black Mountain is visually less impressive –  a flattened adobe pueblo in the bleak Chihuahua Desert – but historically just as important as Pinnacle Ruin and Chimney Rock.  The site, which has never been previously excavated, is a probable link between the Mimbres phase (A.D. 1000 to 1150, famous for its highly artistic black-on-white pottery) and Casas Grandes (A.D. 1250-1450, the last great Southwestern city).  Black Mountain is demographically and geographically between Mimbres in New Mexico and Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua.  In 2010, the University of Colorado began a program of excavations to determine if this site is indeed the “missing link” between the two famous southwestern cultures.

The three sites illustrate the remarkable history that characterized the Southwest.  My current work uses these sites and others to delineate a new history of the ancient Southwest – a history dramatically different than the conventional view of the Southwest as a never-changing cultural backwater.  Great things happened in the ancient Southwest, at sites like Pinnacle, Chimney Rock and Black Mountain!