An inviting history of an intriguing site

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Archaeology in the Four Corners is a culture charged with protecting its findings. Artifacts and photographs, records of scientific investigations, site security and knowledge are often kept behind closed doors and can be difficult to access.

This is partly due to the vast amount of regional information collected by amateur and professional research teams over time and the storage dilemma facing the archivists delegated with the task of preserving the historical treasure. Museums, libraries, research centers, private and personal collections spread over vast distances often require professional degrees, associations or personal contacts for admission. The general public may find a path through the information maze a daunting task.

CHIMENY ROCK NATIONAL MONUMENTIn the recent book, “Chimney Rock National Monument,” regional authors Amron Gravett and Christine Robinette unlock the doors to the sacred storage house of knowledge and let the reader into a collection of information that would be tough to assemble on one’s own today.

More pictorial than dry archaeological text, the book offers an inviting, compelling history of Chimney Rock in vintage photographs followed by concise descriptions of its relevance to archaeology.

The authors are librarians and researchers. They know how to compile germane documents that show this archeological story in context. The birds and the tree rings, the nearby general store, animal bones and expeditions through rugged Colorado country to excavate and preserve the site are woven fluidly through the book.

Flip to any one of the hundreds of photographs assembled from 17 local, regional and federal archival resources, among them the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Library of Anthropology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the School for Advanced Research, both in Santa Fe, N.M.

You will see the peregrine falcons found at Chimney Rock in 1974. Their heart-warming, surprising inclusion in the book explains how they were discovered, rescued, returned to their mates. It bonds the reader to the bird, protected at that time by the Endangered Species Act.

The next sentence reveals the disastrous effect of DDT on the population of the peregine families at the site in the years that followed the rescue. The authors help us understand why thousands of people would build such elaborate, tightly constructed, Chacoan stone structures in this remote and inaccessible location and why we, the general public, should care.

Modi operandi of the Chimney Rock population are well accounted for in the book including the site’s astronomical alignment to the sun and moon built into the architecture. The Great House and surrounding kivas, living quarters, work spaces and the natural geology of the site link together evidence of how it may be a solar/lunar observatory capable of transmitting a calendar of events for ceremony and agriculture to other regional sites.

Concise descriptions, not verbose technical language, illustrate grand accounts of lunar standstills, total solar eclipses, the Crab Nebula supernova, comets and how these events align with the dates of human occupation at Chimney Rock.

We learn that every 18.6 years the moon reaches its northernmost point and seemingly stops and rests briefly at the bottom of the rock saddle between the Companion Rock pinnacles near the Great House ruin.

In a paragraph under the image of this phenomenon, astronomer and astrophysicist John McKim Malville theorizes that “prehistoric inhabitants of the area may have been observing moonrise and equinoctial sunrise between the rock spires as early as the eighth or ninth century.”

The book is replete with significant documents and images, brief but pertinent text. Reading it feels like time spent perusing a family vacation album. Even whole pages from exploration scrapbooks are inserted with handwritten margin notes intact.

It is an experience that piques the reader’s curiosity with a simple but elegant assemblage of black-and-white images that is hard to put down, except as you walk the trails at the site to see for yourself.

“Chimney Rock National Monument” is available at local book stores, independent retailers and on-line retailers, or through the publisher.

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From June 2014.