I recommend a visit to Aztec Ruins in far northwest New Mexico; it is on the way between Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. The location among trees is a stark contrast to Chaco. One of the unique features not mentioned in this otherwise very good article is a band of dark green stones along one of the exterior walls. A little farther south is Salmon Ruins, which is far less stunning but recommended to ruins freaks. mjh
WHAT: Aztec Ruins National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior; telephone: 334-6174.
WHERE: In northwest New Nexico on Ruins Road on the northwest outskirts of the town of Aztec.
HOURS: Open daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Remainder of year, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving.
FEES: Adults, $4; children, no charge.
FACILITIES: Visitor Center provides information, exhibits and a book store. A 25-minute video, “Hisatsinom: The Ancient Ones,” is shown several times daily.
A self-guiding trail leads through the main West Ruin, a multistory pueblo of 400 rooms and 24 kivas. The trail passes through several rooms with intact original roofs.
Outside the West Ruin, the trail provides access to the Great Kiva, a large underground ceremonial chamber, which has been restored to appear as it would have looked in the 12th century.
A shaded picnic area with tables is also provided.
AZTEC RUINS NATIONAL MONUMENTó It’s the perennial waters of the Animas River that likely drew the ancient Indian people to this corner of far northwest New Mexico nearly 900 years ago. [Read more…]
Fed by melting snow and rain from the 14,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains, just to the north in Colorado, the Animas winds its way south through a narrow and fertile valley before flowing into the San Juan River southwest of the modern town of Aztec.
In its course, the river waters fertile bottomlands lined with stands of willows and cottonwoods that must have seemed attractive to the wandering band of Anasazi, a skilled farming people looking for a new home.
In about A.D. 1110, they chose a high ridge along the west bank of the Animas, opposite the later town of Aztec, to construct a large dwelling of sculptured and fitted stones. Built over a four-year period, it was an E-shaped structure of about 400 rooms and 24 kivas that reached three stories high in places.
Today, the extensive remains of the ancient community, an impressive testament to a remarkable culture, are preserved as Aztec Ruins National Monument.
A place of mystery
In the mid-1870s, American settlers from Colorado also selected this section of the Animas Valley and founded their town across the river from the site chosen centuries earlier by the Anasazi.
These latter-day newcomers were intrigued and mystified by the dark and brooding ruins that thrust up through the wind-blown mounds of soil and tangled underbrush on the opposite bank of the Animas. At first, they were at a loss to explain them.
Then the settlers believed they had found the answer in a popular book of the day that had fired romanticism and a spirit of adventure in America’s popular imagination. It was William H. Prescott’s “The Conquest of Mexico,” a widely acclaimed history of Hernan Cortez’s conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519.
Thus they reasoned, the stone city on the Animas must have been the work of that famed Indian civilization of central Mexico. So it followed that they called their new town Aztec, and the prehistoric town across the river became Aztec Ruins.
It would remain for 100 years of excavation and analysis by generations of archaeologists to establish that the Aztecs had nothing to do with the ancient Animas settlement. Rather, it was the product of the Anasazi, a once little-known Indian culture of skilled builders, craftsmen and farmers that had flourished centuries before the rise of the Aztecs.
Today, descendants of the Anasazi live in the pueblos along the Rio Grande, at Zuni, in west-central New Mexico, and in the Hopi villages of eastern Arizona. In their history and oral traditions, they know the stone city on the Animas as “The Place by Flowing Waters.”
It wasn’t until 1916 that Earl H. Morris, a young archaeologist who was born and reared in northwest New Mexico, led the initial excavation and scientific study of the ruins. Sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, Morris and his crew spent five years, until the fall of 1921, in an intensive project that would forever link his name with Aztec.
Tree-ring datings show that major construction of the Aztec “Great House,” as archaeologists call large pueblo structures, was carried out from A.D. 1111 to 1115.
Morris and other experts established that the builders probably came from the great Anasazi cultural center of Chaco Canyon, 65 miles to the south. Masonry work at Aztec is similar to the “banded” style used in many of the dozen major pueblos at Chaco, which date to as early as A.D. 850.
This technique, a hallmark of the Chaco builders, alternates courses of fitted sandstone blocks with bands of small stones in an eye-catching pattern. In addition, Aztec’s multistoried rectangular rooms, high ceilings, precision-aligned doorways, large central plaza and numerous kivas are clues that the builders were well-versed in Chaco architecture.
In fact, Morris believed that Aztec was an outlying colony of Chaco Canyon.
As archaeologists Robert and Florence Lister noted in their detailed study, “Aztec Ruins on the Animas”:
“The question arises as to why such a large edifice was built away from the focal point of Chaco activity. The answer must be that the riparian woodland environment found along the Animas, its relatively more predictable rainfall, permanent waters, fertile soils and its position near timbered elevations with abundant game reserves made it a valuable breadbasket adjunct to the Chaco sphere.”
A new people
For about 85 years, the residents of Aztec held sway in their large pueblo. Then, like their kinsmen to the south in Chaco Canyon, they abandoned the region. By about A.D. 1200, Aztec lay deserted.
Archaeologists theorize that the people left because of extended drought and severe depletion of natural resources. There is no evidence that they were driven away by an outside invader.
However, the abandoned town on the Animas would soon aquire a new life. It also would become a unique bridge between two divisions of the Anasazió the artisans of Chaco Canyon and the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde.
About A.D. 1225, a group of Mesa Verde people left their high mesa and deep canyons in southern Colorado to move into the abandoned Aztec complex.
They added new dwellings, including what is now called the “East Ruin,” which remains largely unexcavated. They remodeled sections of the abandoned pueblo, now known as the “West Ruin,” added new styles of kivas and constructed unique corner doorways, which are rare in Southwest pueblos.
As the Listers noted: “The use of such a critical juncture (the corner of a room) showed either daring or considerable engineering skill, and the fact that many never collapsed underscores the latter.”
Despite their considerable efforts in refurbishing Aztec, the Mesa Verdeans didn’t stay long. By about A.D. 1275, they also began to drift away to escape drought, food shortages and failing resources which severely impacted the social structure.
It was a period which archaeologist Morris called “a time of cultural senility or disease.”
By 1300, the stone dwellings on the Animas had been abandoned to the ravages of the centuries.
A national monument
In 1923, Aztec Ruins was set aside as a national monument, and Earl Morris became its first superintendent. In 1987, the ruins were designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
Today, Aztec represents a significant link between the past and the 21st century. For current-day Pueblo people, the area is the sacred place of their ancestors.
As a National Park Service historian explained:
“Several tribes maintain deep spiritual ties with the area through story, prayer and ceremony. Their timeless connections to its landscape, structures, artifacts and stories are potent reminders of who they are and where they come from.”
However, all visitors to Aztec Ruins can share in this link to the remains of a remarkable civilization that flourished long before Europeans arrived in the New World.
Self-guiding trails wind through the lower story of the immense West Ruin. Here are precision-aligned rooms and doorways of shaped stone, a compelling testament to the engineering skills of the Anasazi. In some rooms, original ceilings of pine and juniper logs, lashed together with yucca strands, are as solid as the day they were built 900 years ago.
Two dozen small kivas, probably used by individual clans, dot the ruins, while in the main courtyard is the Great Kiva, a community ceremonial chamber, 43 feet in diameter. In 1934, Morris and his archaeological team carried out a two-year project to restore the kiva to appear as it did in the 12th century. It is the only fully restored kiva in the Southwest.
Visitors can tour the kiva’s 14 surface-level rooms and antechambers. On the floor of the 8-foot-deep central chamber, surrounded by circular stone benches, are the altar, fire pits and rectangular floor vaults which may have served as foot drums.
Four large columns support a massive roof of latticed wooden beams, logs and earth weighing an estimated 90 tons.
Although the long-deserted ruins of Aztec stand as a vibrant reminder of the achievements of an ancient people, there is an aura of sadness about them.
Robert and Florence Lister sensed this when they wrote:
“Few things seem as totally forlorn as a house emptied of its one-time occupants and left to fall apart, the human sounds within its walls forever quieted, its hearths turned cold.”
The monument was established in 1923, and designated a World Heritage Site in 1987. Acreage: 319.47
Salmon Ruins and Heritage Park
11th-century Pueblo ruins, historical buildings and museum. Initial builders and occupants, referred to as the Primary occupation, were colonists from or had very close ties with the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon.