The folks at Aztec Ruins National Monument near Farmington, New Mexico, would be the first to tell you that Chaco Canyon was not the only place Ancestral Puebloans built large Aztec pueblos. In the 10th century CE, 70 miles north of the Chaco pueblos, are the great houses in Aztec. The pueblo wasn’t built by the Aztecs; their empire would not come to fruition until the 15th century.
Early settlers in the late 1800s heard tales of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez defeating the Aztecs in 1521 and used that name to identify their community in the Four Corners region.
Aztec pueblo followed the plan for Chaco Great Houses
The great houses at Aztec were constructed at the time when Chaco culture was in decline. Like Chaco, the Aztec structures were built of marine sandstone and cemented with mortar and adobe. For roofing, they used cottonwood, piñon, juniper, spruce, Douglas fir, and aspen — many of which they cut and carried on their shoulders from miles away. These people, like the Chacoans, had no horses and no wheels.
Tree ring dating indicates most of the pueblo was built from 1110 to 1115 CE. People continued remodeling and enlarging their community until building ceased in the late 1200s. By then, the village consisted of several large pueblos, great kivas, small residential pueblos, earthworks, and roads.
Aztec abandoned around 1300 CE
They lived near the banks of the Animas River, which provided water most of the year, allowing their agriculture to flourish. But within a century — around 1300 CE — they began to leave the area. The dispersement could have been the result of drought, overhunting, depletion of natural resources, and even social changes.
The Aztec pueblo is divided into west and east ruins. The West Ruin was excavated by Earl Halstead Morris, a pioneer in southwestern archaeology, who worked at the site from 1916 to 1923. Covering about two acres, it contained upwards of 500 interconnected rooms averaging 10 by 12 feet. Some of its walls reach 30 feet. The pueblo included an enclosed plaza, dominated by a Great Kiva.
Morris reconstructs Great Kiva
After excavating other Southwestern ruins, Morris returned to Aztec and, in 1933 – 34, reconstructed the Great Kiva. This semi-subterranean, circular ceremonial chamber has an inner diameter of 48 feet and an outer ring of 14 rooms. It exhibits bilateral symmetry along its central north-south axis, with north and south entrances. The interior core-and-veneer masonry walls include wall niches and a circumferential bench. Paired floor vaults raised above the surface of the floor stand to either side of a centrally located, elevated firebox shielded by a vertical deflector. The roof structure rests on four piers, built with alternating courses of stone and wood, and each seated on four, stacked circular disks of limestone, three feet in diameter. This sophisticated structure would have carried a roof, weighing an estimated 90 tons.
What you’ll see on your tour
There is no fee to visit Aztec Ruins National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from late May until early October and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the balance of the year.
You’ll start at the visitor center, previously Earl Morris’ house. You’ll receive an orientation to the archeological site, pick up a trail guide, and, in the museum, see 900-year-old artifacts such as food remains, stone and wood tools, cotton and feather clothing, fiber sandals, and jewelry made of turquoise and shell. You can also watch a video to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists.
Take an hour or two to step back in time
Your tour begins with a visit lasting one to two hours at the Great Kiva. Then, the self-guided, half-mile tour takes you through its original rooms. Along the way, you’ll discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. Note the western walls have mysterious stripes of green greywacke stone, an uncommon “dirty sandstone” that forms from underwater avalanches. The stones were covered with adobe, so no one is certain of the stripe’s purpose, although it probably was ceremonial rather than just decorative.
The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. If you want a more in-depth informative tour, rangers offer interpretive talks and tours at scheduled times from May through September.
East Ruin preserved for future study
The ruins on the east side include Mound F, Mound A, East Ruin, and the Earl Morris Ruin. They are reserved for future excavation and study and are closed to the public.
Take a walk in the garden
You can conclude your tour with a visit to the Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. You can see the wild plants people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years. Follow these links to read about the grasses, herbaceous plants, and succulents as well as the shrubs and trees found on the trail and elsewhere at Aztec Ruins.
In 2023, the monument celebrated its centennial, having been established by President Warren G. Harding on January 24, 1923.
Totaling roughly 318 acres, Aztec Ruins National Monument is a relatively small remnant of the history of the Southwest but, despite its size, its significance to descendants, archeologists, preservationists, and visitors — like you — is undeniable.