While staying in Farmington, New Mexico, Bill and I decided to explore several of the Anasazi Ruins in the area. Our discovery of the Aztec Ruins, just 15 miles down the road was a sweet surprise!

The Spanish Named it Aztec

The ruins are located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico.  The name comes from the early Spanish explorers who came through this area in 1540-1542.  They were under the impression that all ruins in the area were built by the same builders as those in Old Mexico and so named the place “Aztec Ruins”.  The name stuck, even though it was highly inaccurate.

After Chaco Canyon, this was the next-largest, most intensive concentration of people and architecture in the region. It was built about 20 years after Salmon Ruins were built in nearby Bloomfield, NM.

Chaco Canyon Culture Spreads North

Aztec’s great houses appear to mirror those of Downtown Chaco. They match the great houses in Chaco in almost exact square footage, angled toward and away from another in the same fashion as Chao’s great houses, emulating Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and so on. The West Ruin at Aztec is the same dimensions of Pueblo Bonito. It is as if the people picked up Chaco and moved fifty-five miles north to the Animas River.

So the theory goes that Chaco Canyon, as dry as it is, was not a good headquarters during the dry years of the 12th century. A new center was needed closer to reliable water sources. This implies that the move was ordered by a central government.  “Re-build us near the river”, they seem to have said. “Then we will move”. This implies an amazing cultural continuity. Not a collapse, but a conscious, group choice to re-locate.

The Best Land for Farming

The wet area around Farmington is called the Totah. Four rivers come together here, so farmers could rely on consistent water for farming.   So, long before the builders from Chaco Canyon came here, the area was thriving.  Homes from all phases of development, from early Basket Weaver all the way to Pueblo 3, can be found in the area.  The modern town of Aztec, and the area for miles around, is dotted with the remnants of small homes, larger communities, and finally the Great Houses and cultural centers of Salmon Ruins and Aztec Ruins.

The view from the great house shows the kiva in the main courtyard.

But when the Chaco builders came, everything took a step forward, in size, in complexity and probably in the cultural continuity throughout the area.  Aztec was a planned community.  There are several large, multi-story, public “great houses”.  In addition, there are many residential structures, kivas, and roadways.  Earth berms seem to be placed as landscaping and to create visual drama, just as was done in Chaco Canyon around the Great Houses.  These Great Houses were well planned, public buildings with many interconnected rooms.  Even the layout of the buildings was formal and created a grand impression to the visitors of this grand city.

Small doorways including T Shaped Doorway
The benches around this kiva were used as shelves, not as seats.
This second kiva sits in front of the Great House
Green stone band in wall of Great House
The view of the great house from the main courtyard

And Then They Left …

Then in the late 1200s, just like everywhere else in the four-corners region, the people just left.  Perfect irrigation, large homes, great weather, were all abandoned and the people moved south. The Hopi, one of the tribes descendent from the Anasazi, state that “it was time to continue our journey to the center.”

Earl Morris Reconstructs the Great Kiva

In the 1920s, an archaeologist by the name of Earl Morris uncovered the site of Aztec Ruins. By this time, Morris had uncovered many ruins in the area, loading museums with artifacts as he went. Because of that experience, he had fairly precise knowledge of how the great kiva would have looked when it was originally in use. In contrast to modern archaeological practice, Mr. Morris decided to reconstruct the Great Kiva to demonstrate a functioning space as it would have been. Earl Morris completed the reconstruction in 1934.

The Great Kiva on the right was rebuilt to demonstrate the original appearance

The 15 rooms that surround the central chamber are unique to this Great Kiva.  As with other Great Kivas, this was a public building used by people in the community for ceremonies and other organized activities. The ancients often reconstructed Kivas right on top of their predecessors.  The original ceiling of Aztec’s great kiva was once supported by four massive timbers.  Those timbers were apparently intentionally burned along with the wooden ceiling.  This was then replaced in the 12th century with 4 stone pillars and a new roof. Upgrades!

The kiva has many features common to other Chaco style Kivas in the area. These include the large size, a central fire pit, four pillars, floor vaults, and a ledge around the interior edge. Entry to the kiva was through roof hatch which doubled as a ventilator shaft that allowed air to circulate from the outside, and smoke from the central fire pit to exit.

Interior of reconstructed Great Kiva to demonstrate original appearance

Aztec Ruins was the Center of a Large Cultural Community

As you can see from the map below by the National Park Service, the excavated buildings are only a small part of the recognized ancient city of Aztec Ruins. Additionally, residents of the area are often finding the remains of smaller homes scattered throughout the large river basin.

Map provided by the National Parks Association

Travelers Notes

  • The Town of Aztec is about 15 minutes north of Farmington, New Mexico.  The parking lot had some RV spaces, although I would avoid bringing large rigs into the lot.
  • The Ruins are maintained as a National Monument by the National Park Service.  The entry fee is $5 per person.  Your Discovery/Access pass will cover the charge.
  • The walkways around the area are paved and accessible for persons with limited mobility.  You can actually walk through the ruins themselves if you like, although there are some low doorways that made my back complain a bit!
  • Pets are not allowed on the ruins or the trails around them.  There is a large pet-friendly park next to the ruins that was great for our picinic!

When you get there:

  • Be sure to take a look inside the re-built Great Kiva.  Modern archeologists do not like to “re-build” things because it damages the existing structure.  This was done in 1934.  It is the only “re-built” great kiva in the park system and it really helps to understand the significance of these buildings.
  • Find the corner doorway.  It is built in the junction of two walls.  It must be significant, because doing this weakens the structure.
  • Walk to the Hubbard Tri-Wall site for a view of the surrounding area.  You can just imagine this beautiful land dotted by farm homes.  The residents of the valley enjoyed Aztec Ruins as a center of their community.

External links


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