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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometime around 1085 people started moving north along the great road coming out of the desert. Eventually they arrived on the banks of the Animas and San Juan Rivers near present day Aztec New Mexico. We don’t know what they called the rivers or how they called themselves but we can be sure they probably came from the south, from the Chaco Canyon cultural centers or outposts about eighty miles to the south. We also don’t know what motivated their journey. Were they sent north by some authority to establish satellite communities? Did they follow a respected leader? Were they escaping overcrowding or shortages at Chaco? These people had a culture based on a strong religion, living in established towns, impressive and durable stone construction, farming, and efficient utilization of natural resources. They were essentially farmers who grew corn, beans and squash. They supplemented their diet with wild game and maybe some domesticated animals like turkeys, and gathered other wild plant resources like wild nuts and berries. They knew when and where to find wild food — not much was left to chance. They seemed to have a society that favored symmetry and balance in all things.


The people went to work building a new community. The first thing the built was a kiva for religious ceremonies. After that they began building walls and rooms and more kivas. By the time they were done, thirty years after their arrival, they had an impressive communal great house of over 400 rooms and three stories high enclosing a central plaza and a great kiva. During these years of construction, they also farmed, traded, and hunted. The logs for construction had to be cut and carried many miles from the mountains. The ground had to be prepared and stones had to be carried and arranged in a distinctive Chaco style of construction. Today it is easy to distinguish the precise early Chaco style masonry from the cobbled Mesa Verde style used for later additions. A green stone band was laid along one main wall.

There were several large pueblos or great houses here at Aztec. There are seven within about two miles. One sits unexcavated only a few hundred feet to the east and others are scattered nearby. The earliest settlement is a short distance to the north on higher ground and sits on the ancient road heading north out of Chaco Canyon. Some theories hold that conditions were bad enough at Chaco Canyon that the local leaders hoped to establish a “new Chaco” at the Aztec location. Like the buildings and great houses at Chaco Canyon, the Aztec great house is aligned with the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstice.

The people living here survived maybe six generations or more but were pretty much gone by the year 1300. The all-important balance seemed to be out of control due to a persistent drought that disrupted the food supply and may have brought famine and conflict. There is some evidence that it was abandoned and then reoccupied for a while by people from Mesa Verde. Some scholars theorize that the Aztec great house people moved away because of the climate change and that some may have eventually ended up at Casas Grandes in northern Mexico while others moved to Mesa Verde and then into the Rio Grande Valley.

We don’t know a great deal about these people from the south but they left us many clues when they moved away. The buildings and much of their material culture was left behind as artifacts of their daily life. The site was located by looters in the 1880s and literally mined for artifacts. Organized and systematic excavation took place in the 1920s. In the 1930s the National Park Service restored and recreated the great kiva as it once existed 800 years ago. Archaeological science, theories, and techniques have made great strides since the 1920s and there is still work being carried out adding to the knowledge base. I first visited fifteen years ago and the information about the people and the site has improved and advanced in that time.


Some of the rooms in the ruin remain intact and never collapsed. The ceiling is 800 years old. There’s a woven reed screen still hanging in a doorway. The rooms had nichos for storage or possibly religious purposes. Most of the masonry at the site is original, probably 90%. Some modern repairs were made and also some minor efforts at stabilization and to provide access. The log beams protruding from the walls are original and date to as early as 1085. In some places there are remnants of the original roof material clinging to the beams.


The great kiva is a reconstruction from the 1930s and unique in that it is surrounded by fifteen small rooms. The walls are painted according to colored plaster found in the original collapsed building. The ceiling weighs 90 tons.

Of course, the name is misleading. The Aztecs never lived here and these people were already gone when the Aztecs first settled Tenochtitlan in Mexico. It is possible, even likely, that trade routes connected people as far south as Yucatan to those living in the Mesa Verde/Chaco region at various times for different trade items.

Perhaps, dear reader, you have visited Aztec Ruins National Monument or wish to. It is in northwest New Mexico at the town of Aztec near Farmington and some distance south of Durango, Colorado.

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Discovering Places, 2017