AZTEC — A visiting archaeologist will explore new theories on Chimney Rock in southern Colorado during a free lecture at Aztec Ruins on Friday.

Michelle Turner, a Binghamton University graduate student in archaeology, will offer her findings and new ways of thinking about the twin spired stone formation near Pagosa Springs, Colo. It has been long considered a northeasternmost frontier — and highest elevation of any Puebloan site — of Chacoan culture.

Part of the Aztec Ruins summer lecture series, Turner's presentation, "Rethinking Chimney Rock," will include a sideshow and question-and-answer session at the park's visitor's center.

Turner, 39, is spending this summer conducting ceramic analysis at Aztec Ruins for her master's thesis.

Michelle Turner, pictured here at Chaco Canyon, will present new theories on Chimney Rock in southern Colorado at a free lecture at Aztec Ruins on Friday.
Michelle Turner, pictured here at Chaco Canyon, will present new theories on Chimney Rock in southern Colorado at a free lecture at Aztec Ruins on Friday. (Courtesy of Michelle Turner)

"I came to start looking at Chimney Rock more from a theoretical standpoint," Turner said by phone on Wednesday. "I was interested in it thinking of what frontiers and borderlands are like. They're often places where there's an exchange — shared languages, customs, ideas."

In April, Turner traveled to the 79th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Tex., to present the culmination of her two years' worth of research on and visits to Chimney Rock in her paper, "Frontiers Reconsidered at Chimney Rock."

President Obama gave the Puebloan site a national monument designation in 2012.

Turner thinks that the 4,726 acre site was an active cultural center — not a mere 'Chacoan outlier' — more than 1,000 years ago. Situated on a high mesa at the southern edge of the San Juan Mountains the site is more complicated than is often thought, she said.

"It's not Chaco imposing its ideas on others but rather it's a two-way interaction," Turner said. "They keep their old ways and develop new ways. It makes sense if you think about what borders are like in our world. There's a community that was living on top of the mesa and two components — local people and Chacoans — both had an impact. I'm interested in differences."

One element of Chimney Rock that Turner sees as evidence for new theories on the multiple applications and extensions of polyculture at the site is the use of the natural rock formations as a celestial observatory. The rock spires and great house there are ideal spots to track the movement of the sun and the moon, she said.

"There's the lunar maximum, when the moon is at the furthest point on the horizon, and from the Great House you can look out at these two spires and the moon rises between them," she said.

Also called a Major Lunar Standstill, for three years, "this spectacular sight, which occurs every 18.6 years, is believed to have influenced construction of the Chacoan-style Great House atop Chimney Rock's high mesa," the national monument's website reads. "Whether coincidence or planned, the Great House Pueblo is a natural observatory for the MLS."

The next occurrence will begin in 2021, according to the website.

Aztec Park Ranger Lauren Blacik said the lecture series has been well attended and offered a diverse array of topics. The next scheduled event will be "Moon Tracks: Lunar Horizon Patterns," an Aug. 1 lecture by Pagosa Springs archaeoastronomer Ron Sutcliffe.

"We're really looking forward and to (Turner's) discussion," Blacik said. "(Chimney Rock) is one of our newest national monuments, so, in that sense, Michelle's talk will be timely and interesting for the community to see."


What: “Rethinking Chimney Rock” lecture by archeologist Michelle Turner

When: 7 p.m., Friday, July 18

Where: Aztec Ruins Visitor Center 

Cost: Free

More info: Call Aztec Ruins at 505-334-6174.

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.