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Chimney Rock Becomes Newest National Monument

A large sandstone feature in southwestern Colorado, Chimney Rock became America's newest national monument on Friday. (iStockphoto.com)

President Obama named a new national monument on Friday: Chimney Rock in southwestern Colorado. With two sandstone spires soaring from a mesa, not only is Chimney Rock a spectacular place; it also provides a fascinating glimpse into the ancient people who lived in that region more than 1,000 years ago.

The moon usually rises south of the stone towers at Chimney Rock, but every 18 or 19 years, the moon rises directly between the two huge pillars. This feature seems to have been especially important to a society known as the ancestral Pueblo people. They built their largest building — what archaeologists call their "great house" — to have a perfect view of this astronomical wonder.

Archaeologist Steve Lekson says that this great house is actually still standing at Chimney Rock, and it is a remarkable sight. "The location is just stunning," he says. "And then they architecturally positioned themselves on that ridge out near those two huge pillars to make that thing really impressive."

As a tall, square, 40-room palace with ornate masonry, the great house is the centerpiece of the settlement. The house's design stands apart from the simple, circular houses where farmers and commoners would live.

Chimney Rock is the third national monument President Obama has created, the distinction owing to this feature's rich heritage and natural scenery. As a national monument, the area surrounding Chimney Rock will now see more protection, and also more money.

The monument was one of many outposts of the much larger Chaco Canyon settlement in northern New Mexico, about 55 miles away. An experiment done by a high school student, and the discovery of fireboxes at both sites, led archaeologists to believe that the settlements were able to communicate with smoke signals.

"[The student] had her mom stand at one end, down towards Chaco, and she flashed mirrors at Chimney Rock, or vice versa," Lekson says.

Brenda Todd is one of the experts who has argued that Chimney Rock was a colony of Chaco. Before she started studying Chimney Rock for her Ph.D., she got a taste of its magic. In 2006, she hiked up to the great house at Chimney Rock and watched the lunar standstill. "We saw the moon rise between the pillars that night, and it was pretty amazing," she says.

Visitors to the new national monument won't get to view that astronomical sight for many years. In the meantime, though, there's lots to learn there about the people who lived in the American Southwest.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama named a new national monument today - Chimney Rock, in southwestern Colorado. It is a spectacular place. Two colossal sandstone spires soar from a mesa high above an evergreen forest. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has more on the spot's new status and the ancient people who called it home more than a thousand years ago.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: The moon usually rises south of the huge sandstone towers at Chimney Rock. But every 18 or 19 years, the moon has what's called a lunar standstill and for a few years, the moon rises directly between the two huge pillars. This seems to have been pretty important to a society known as the ancestral Pueblo people. They built their largest building, what archeologists call their Great House, to have a perfect view of this astronomical wonder. Archeologist Steve Lekson says that Great House is still standing at Chimney Rock and is a remarkable sight.

STEVE LEKSON: It was built for wow. It's on a spot that's pure wow. I mean, the location is just stunning. And then they architecturally positioned themselves on that ridge near those two huge pillars to make that thing really impressive.

SHOGREN: This 40-room palace is the centerpiece of the settlement.

LEKSON: You go up and see the Great House, which is all these square walls and fancy masonry and big tall imposing rooms, and then go down and see where the normal people lived, the 99 percent.

SHOGREN: The farmers and other common folk lived in much more simple, circular houses. This rich heritage and natural scenery earned Chimney Rock the status of national monument. It will give the place more protection and more money. It's the third national monument President Obama has created. The first two were historic military forts. The new national monument, Chimney Rock, was one of many outposts of the much larger Chaco Canyon settlement in northern New Mexico.

Although Chimney Rock is about 55 miles from Chaco, archeologists believe the two settlements communicated with smoke signals. Lexan says a high school student first demonstrated that Chaco Canyon and Chimney Rock were set up for line of sight communication.

LEKSON: And her mom stayed at one end, you know, down towards Chaco and she flashed mirrors at Chimney Rock or vice versa.

SHOGREN: Archeologists also found huge fire boxes at both sites.

LEKSON: They weren't toasting marshmallows. They're sending signals.

SHOGREN: Brenda Todd is one of the experts who has argued that Chimney Rock was a colony of Chaco.

BRENDA TODD: The architecture, I mean, it just screams Chacoan.

SHOGREN: But before Todd started her PhD on Chimney Rock, she got a taste of its magic. In 2006 she hiked up to the Great House at Chimney Rock and watched the lunar standstill.

TODD: We saw the moon rise between the pillars that night and it was pretty amazing.

SHOGREN: Visitors to the new national monument won't get to view that astronomical sight for many years. But in the meantime, there's lots to learn there about the people who lived in the American southwest more than a thousand years ago. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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