Travel: Aztec Ruins National Monument

Story and photo by Phil Clark
Lake Powell Chronicle

Seemingly hidden behind a modest residential area in Aztec, New Mexico, there is a gem of a small park. Aztec Ruins National Monument offers visitors a glimpse into ancient pueblo life well before anyone else lived nearby and the opportunity to experience what it’s like to stand in a large kiva.  

Created in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding, Aztec Ruins is actually a misnomer. Aztec Indians of Mexico never lived in this area. Ancestral Puebloans called this small settlement home from the 1100s to the 1300s before leaving the site for the Rio Grande Valley, the Hopi Mesas, and for other settlements in the Colorado Plateau.

An early winter cold snap had turned the leaves of the cottonwood trees mostly brown while some random trees seemed to insist on a showy display of yellow. The native plants had gone dry to sleep through the winter as my wife and I arrived at the monument. Entering the visitor center, which used to be the personal residence of H.D. Abrams, a strong supporter for the preservation of the ruins, we start with visiting the exhibits. Display cases trace the history of Native Americans in the region and the history of the monument. Some of the displays included artifacts that were found at Aztec. Before following the paved trail through the ruins, we watched a video of the history of the monument and the people that used to live there providing valuable insights in how it might have been to live in this part of the Colorado Plateau.  

The main ruins are referred to as West Ruin and are believed to contain some 400 rooms, 20 kivas and one Great Kiva. The Pueblo complex rises to three stories and some kivas are located on upper floors. The overall layout of the west ruin is a rectangle with one long side missing. There are many interesting architectural details including T-shaped doorways, windows built at the corner of two walls and a striking line of green rock carefully mortared in place separating other brownish rock masonry. The long back wall aligns with the sun on the summer solstice. Archeologists theorize that the ancient Pueblo people started forming larger population centers at what is now Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Mesa Verde National Park. Aztec lies about halfway between Chaco and Mesa Verde. Many of the masonry styles found at Aztec are similar to those used at the two other parks. Ancient roads have been discovered linking these ancient centers of civilization. 

Two to 300 hundred people are believed to have lived in the West Ruin. Tree ring data shows that Aztec was built starting in 1085 A.D. and was inhabited until the early 1200s. Between 1916 and 1921 Earl H. Morris, a well-known archeologist working for the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., excavated West Ruin and carefully documents artifacts found in the ruins.

As we arrived at the visitor center, we obtained a brochure that explained each numbered stop along the trail. One of the first stops and perhaps the best-known structure at Aztec is the Grand Kiva, which was reconstructed by the National Park Service in 1934. Walking into this huge space gives the visitor an idea how it might have been to be a Native American participating in ceremonies in the Grand Kiva. As we entered the huge space, we found ourselves silently observing, as if not to disturb the spirits of the ancient people that are said to still reside there. 

The roof, made of overlapping trunks of trees, rests on four square columns made of masonry alternating with small poles, mostly covered with plaster. A small section of the ancient masonry is exposed to show visitors how the columns were built.  The kiva’s interior space is one of the largest in the ancient Pueblo sites. As I look around, I see that the kiva is circular and is itself encircled by 14 rooms, some of which are open to the outside. The walls are painted in two colors. On the floor of the kiva are two masonry open boxes measuring about 8 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet wide, evenly spaced between two of the columns. 

Archeologists do not know what these were used for. Another masonry box is about 5 sq. feet and archeologists found fine white ash during the original excavation leading to the conclusion that it was used for ceremonial fires. The Great Kiva, constructed during the late Chacoan period, was presumably a major ceremonial chamber in its day and attending ceremonies would have been a memorable experience.

Walking along the rest of the trail, we saw how some of the rooms were added later with different masonry techniques. The walking tour took us into the structure itself giving us a feeling of what it would have been like to live there. The ancients were shorter in stature and I had to crouch down, as if doing the “Limbo” to get through some of the interior doors. Looking at the masonry details along the tour showed us how skilled the ancients were in masonry. 

A stop around the middle of the tour was to the three-walled structure called “Hubbard Tri-Walled Site.” It had been partially excavated in the 1920s and backfilled, leaving only the tops of the walls above ground. A round structure resembling a kiva, it is unusual in that it was built with three concentric circular walls, separated by walls to make rooms.

Further to the east are unexcavated sites known and the East Ruin, Annex, Mound M, and Earl Morris Ruin. These ruins are closed to the public.

We returned to the visitor center and bought some souvenirs before heading west, out of the cold of northern New Mexico and into the heat of northern Arizona. We were glad to have taken the time to visit Aztec Ruins National Monument breaking up our long trip with a step back into history.