Aztec Ruins is a National Monument in Aztec, New Mexico, belonging to the Pueblo people, who lived in the area close to 1,000 years ago. A 900 year-old ancestral Great House, and a reconstructed ceremonial Great Kiva offer a look at the culture of the Pueblo Native Americans.
The Aztec Ruins Visitor Center is itself a historic building, the home of archeologist Earl Morris, who led the first digs at Aztec Ruins in 1916. Visits that begin at the Visitor Center may start with the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprint of the Past, which speaks to the site’s history from the perspective of Native American scholars, archeologists, and others. The Visitor Center also houses a small museum with exhibits displaying some of the 900-year old artifacts recovered from the site. Items in the collection include pottery, an original wooden ladder, stone tools and textiles woven from the fibers of the Yucca plant.
From the Visitor Center, guests may take a self-guided tour of the three-story Great House ruins. The Great House is a 400 room structure of stone masonry built in the 11th century. The excavated west side of the ruins may be self toured with a 45 minute walk. The half-mile trail winds in and out of the Great House rooms, and offers a close up look of original masonry, extraordinarily well-preserved wood roofing, and even displays fingerprints of the builders in the original mortar.
A reconstructed Great Kiva is the world’s largest reconstructed building of its kind, with a diameter of over 40 feet. The building, which is partially underground, served as the site of political meetings and religious ceremonies, and is perhaps the first public-use building of the American southwest region. Great Kivas are among the largest and deepest of the Chaco culture Kivas, and always rise above the surrounding landscape, while smaller, Chaco-style Kivas are flush with the ground. They exist as stand alone buildings, separate from the Great House, and many contain vaults in the floor, believed to have been used for storage of foot drums used by ceremonial dancers. The Kiva at Aztec Ruins was first excavated by Earl Morris in 1921. He then returned to supervise its reconstruction in 1934.
History: The Aztec Ruins date back to sometime between the 11th and 12th century. Their name comes from a misidentification of the site by the earliest American settlers, who, in the early 1800’s believed that the Aztecs built them. In actuality, the site was built by Ancestral Puebloans, a Native American culture who once occupied much of the American Southwest, across what would be today’s Four Corners of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and southwest Colorado.
Earl Morris was a University of Colorado archeologist who led the first digs at Aztec Ruins in 1916, at the young age of 25. Funded by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Morris spent several years excavating the west side of the Great House ruins, as well as supervising the reconstruction of the Great Kiva in 1934. In 1923 he married Ann Axtell, an archeologist and anthropologist from the University of Arizona. The two partnered on several digs throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, including a trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where they spent 5 seasons in Chichen Itza.
The site has been a National Monument since 1923. In 1987, it was designated a World Heritage site for its preservation of Chaco cultural heritage and achievements in Ancestral Puebloan engineering and architecture.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Ranger led guided tours are only available during the summer months, from May through September. A Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk takes visitors on a short stroll through the gardens surrounding the Visitor Center. National Parks Service staff grow traditional corn, beans, amaranth, sunflowers and squash in the Heritage Garden, while the Native Plant Walk points out the variety of plants that the people of the region subsided on for hundreds of years.
Additional summer activities include Ranger led talks on Native American crafts, astronomy programs and full moon tours, as well as guided tours of areas of the park normally closed to the public, such as the unexcavated east ruins of the Great House.
What’s Nearby: The National Monument is easily accessible, as it is located on the New Mexico’s Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, close to the town of Aztec. The route includes the Chaco Culture National Historic Park among several other sites that preserve the 13,000-year old history of the area.
725 Ruins Rd, Aztec, NM 87410, Phone: 505-334-6174
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