Exploring The Parks: Musings From Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec has nothing to do with the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America. But it does have everything to do with Ancestral Puebloans. It may be one of many places people from Chaco moved to when Chaco was abandoned. Occupation here began in about the late 1000's and flourished until around 1130. By the late 1200s, this settlement was abandoned as so many others had been. As is the case elsewhere, no one knows why.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is a very tiny monument. It can’t be more than just 30 acres or so. To reach it, one must drive through a residential neighborhood of the town of Aztec, New Mexico, that surrounds the monument, cross the Animas River, park, and walk to the visitor center. The surroundings are lush by comparison with most other similar places. The people who inhabited this one had no worries about water until, according to archaeologists, a long and serious drought hit them. It was refreshing to be among green trees and looking out on a large and grassy picnic area after nearly a week in bone-dry Chaco.
The first exploration of Aztec was in 1859 when geologist John Newberry found it in a state of fair preservation. He mapped it and left. Over the next 50 years, however, it was looted repeatedly. When an anthropologist named Lewis Morgan visited in 1878, he noted that perhaps a quarter of the stone that comprised the structures had been hauled off by local Anglo settlers to build their homes. When a local teacher and some students who were digging in the mounds of rubble found a few burials and some well-preserved rooms, looting by locals became intense. It was not until 1889, when the ruin was purchased as private property, that there was any protection at all from the rapaciousness of pot hunters and grave robbers.
In 1916, a 25-year old archaeologist named Earl Morris began the first scientific excavations of what was left. In 1923, Congress designated Aztec as a national monument. Morris later reconstructed one of the great kivas, which we may all visit today. In 1987, Aztec Ruins National Monument was named a World Heritage Site.
I had been to Aztec only once in 1968 when my class of new rangers at Albright Training Center went on a field trip. All I could remember was the reconstructed great kiva. There are some folks who will loudly tell you that reconstructing the kiva was akin to turning the place into an amusement park. Honestly, I’m glad that this kiva has been reconstructed. I think it provides a chance for visitors who have seen countless other kiva structures in whatever state they may be in to see what one might have looked like in days long past. It’s impressive.
It was interesting to learn from a booklet on dendrochronology that I purchased at Chaco that Aztec is the place which can boast the most accurate dating of its times of construction and abandonment.
Because Aztec is so small, with only one excavated structure and the kiva to tour, a visit really takes a very short time. Visitation occurs in small, continuous dribbles of people wandering in from the parking lot. The trail guide and self-guiding trail do a very adequate job of interpreting the place. Normally, I was told, there will usually be a ranger roving the trails, but this was the end of May. School field trip season. I shared the monument this day with a couple classes of fourth-grade students from some schools in Farmington, New Mexico. Rangers were just finishing working with the kids, who were some of the best behaved I’ve seen, and were sending them out to enjoy the picnic area when I got there. I noticed that there was a large footlocker of teaching items on the patio and a couple of computers kids were using to explore and learn more about the place. Two boys were on their knees in the display room, fascinated by a model of what the place must have looked like when it was occupied.
Like many other very small areas, Aztec has not been able to update its museum displays. These were very tired relics of Mission 66. (An effort launched back in the 1950s to update our parks’ facilities by 1966, the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service.) In several display cases, artifacts had been removed and in their places were notes explaining that whatever had once been displayed had been removed out of respect for our Native American neighbors. However, I did spot one hopeful note. In one corner of a display case was a small sign that said new displays are coming and should be ready some time next year.
Aztec is jointly administered with Chaco, even though 50 miles separates them. A little over an hour was all the time needed for me to explore Aztec. Then it was time for a burger in town and steering for Mesa Verde. There is no campground or other facilities in the monument, but a commercial campground is located almost across the street.
Aztec is a tiny place, but well worth a visit. I had scanned the trail guide quickly while walking the trail. It wasn’t until I was in camp later in the evening that I took another, closer look at the guide and discovered that it’s a gem in itself. Its pages intersperse the usual facts about what lies behind the numbered posts along the trail with fragments of stories told, perhaps in kivas, by our Pueblo friends. We learn that before the beginning of this time, The People lived in the Third World. Life was hard. There was sickness, little food, and it was cold and dark. The Elders heard footsteps on the roof of their world, and became determined to find out if there was life beyond. In a special place they prayerfully planted a fir tree, which grew until it almost touched the roof of the Third World.
Now it will have to be up to you to visit Aztec and learn the rest of the story. Happy travels . . . .