Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, US Southwest

Explore Aztec Ruins In The Four Corners Area Of The Desert Southwest

Aztec Ruins might make you think of the ancient people of Mexico and wonder why you’d find them in the US Southwest. But the Aztecs had nothing to do with these ruins.

One of the larger ancient ruins in the Four Corners area, Aztec ruins preserve an ancient city of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. The Ancestral Puebloans are, in fact, the ancestors of the modern Native tribes of the Four Corners area of the US, the Hopi and Zuni among others.

The Great House in Aztec Ruins National Monument
The Great House in Aztec Ruins National Monument

Why Aztec in the Southwest US?

The first explorers who stumbled upon these ruins were early settlers in the Southwest. Impressed by the structures, they attributed them to the Aztecs, most likely the only ancient civilization they knew of in the Americas. They even got their geography wrong though; the Aztec Empire was thousands of miles from here.

They probably couldn’t fathom the idea that locals could build such elaborate structures. But however it started, the misnomer stuck, and it hasn’t changed even after archaeologists confirmed that Ancestral Puebloans built these structures who had nothing to do with the Aztecs.

Who Built these Structures?

The people who built this ancient settlement and once lived here were known as Anasazi. The name originated from the Navajo; Anasazi for them means “the ancient ones”.

But now we know that they were ancestors of present-day Pueblo tribes. We use the term “Ancestral Puebloans” since that’s what their descendants call them.

They were the same people who built the larger Chaco.In fact, Aztec is considered an outlier of Chaco. It started out as a community connected to the center to facilitate trade and bring in goods for the population of the larger center.

It became the site we see today around the time Chaco was getting abandoned, around 1100. Archaeologists, starting with Earl Morris, who excavated here, believe that the Chacoans migrated here, and built most of the structures.

An Ancestral Puebloan Community

The largest Ancestral Pueblo Community in the Animas River Valley, the people of Aztec Ruins lived here for about 200 years, between 1100 and 1300. They built a few “great houses” comprising multi-story interlocking rooms, kivas, and smaller structures. Each “great house” had a kiva, or ceremonial center, associated with it.

Structures in Aztec Ruins National Monument, NM
The ancient people of Aztec built Great Houses and Kivas or ceremonial centers

They didn’t live here long, considering all the trouble they went through to build this elaborate settlement. For years, archaeologists wondered why. They considered drought and other environmental factors, which obviously contributed to them leaving. But as they learned that these people didn’t simply disappear, they also realized that their descendants might have the answer.

The Pueblo people of today describe the site as a stop on their migration journey. But just because you know you are only passing through an area doesn’t mean you won’t build a home there, they say. You still had to make a living, work the land and use your ceremonial centers to find answers.

At the end of that phase of migration, the people from Aztec moved on to join other communities along the Rio Grande, and in the Zuni and the Hopi villages of today.

Aztec Ruins National Monument Connects People of the Past with Their Descendants

Many Southwestern tribes maintain a connection with the site today, through traditional dances and pilgrimages at certain times of the year. For them, this is a place where their ancestors lived, part of their people’s journey, a place with deep spiritual significance.

Kiva in Aztec Ruins National Monument
A Kiva is an ancient ceremonial center, and it has significance for the Pueblo people to this day.

If you walk through the museum, you’ll learn the connections between many of the present-day tribes and the people who once called Aztec home.

Though anyone can visit the ruins, keep in mind its significance to the present-day descendants of the ancient inhabitants of these structures.

Walking through the ancient rooms, we are quiet, even keep our voices low to a whisper. Seems like noises or loud voices have no place here, among the ruins. We are lucky; we don’t encounter many visitors, but even those we see walk around quietly, so as not to disturb the spirit of the place.

Aztec Ruins Becomes a National Monument

Aztec Ruins was designated a National Monument in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding “for the enlightenment and culture of the nation.”

Since then, the National Park system has worked to preserve and protect the ruins and to teach visitors about the people who once lived here.

The Visitor Center

The Visitor Center was once the home of archaeologist Earl Morris, who first excavated the site and rebuilt the Great Kiva.

inside the museum at Aztec Ruins

Archaeologists Earl Morris And Ann Axtell Morris At Aztec

Known for his contributions to the archaeology of the US Southwest and Mexico, Earl Morris spent several seasons digging and working at Aztec, starting in 1916.

He led the excavation of Aztec West, the Great Kiva, and a few rooms in Aztec East. Later, in 1934, in association with the National Park Service, he supervised the reconstruction of the Great Kiva.

He lived with his family in the house that is now home to the Visitor Center of Aztec National Monument.

His wife, Anne Axtell Morris was also a renowned archaeologist, who worked more on recording and painting architecture, petroglyphs and pictographs, landscapes, and expedition work.

Besides their work in the US Southwest, Earl and Ann Morris were known for their digs at Chichen Itza, where they spend five seasons.

Footprints of the Past

A movie playing in the theater gives us an account of the site from different perspectives, the Pueblo people, Navajos, and archaeologists. CalledAztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past, it will make you look at the ruins with different eyes. In the 15 minutes that the show is playing you’ll learn a lot about the people who built this place and lived here, and also about their connection to present-day Pueblo tribes.

Pick up a brochure and listen to the orientation from the ranger, then head out to the self-guided trail.

Self-Guided Trail

The interpretive trail winds through the structures and leads you through the Great House and through its rooms. Similar to the Great Houses at Chaco, it features interconnected rooms and low, T-shaped doorways. Some walls still have original stucco and a few of the wooden beams on the roof are originals.

Aztec NM doorways inside the ruins
Inside the ruins, where even the wooden beams are still originals

If you look at the outside walls, you’ll notice a dark shade of green line adorning them. This is a characteristic of Aztec, I haven’t seen it at other sites even in the Southwest.

Aztec Ruins NM
A line in a shade of dark green runs along the wall of the building – archaeologists are still guessing its significance

The reconstructed Great Kiva is the only one of its kind. Kivas are all over the Southwest, in every ruin. However, this is the only one that Earl Morris reconstructed, and it looks as close as possible to the original. It’s not perfect, but it gives us an idea of what it must have been like in a ceremonial kiva.

The reconstructed kiva in Aztec Ruins National Monument
The reconstructed kiva in Aztec Ruins National Monument

Aztec Ruins Are Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Aztec Ruins National Monument is a designated UNESCO Heritage Site since 1987. Part of the Chaco Culture World Heritage Site, it preserves important Pueblo architectural achievements.

Chaco Culture, a network of archaeological sites, includes Chaco, Aztec and five smaller sites with the UNESCO site designation.

“These sites were a focus for ceremonies, trade, and political activity and they are remarkable for their monumental public and ceremonial buildings and distinctive multi-storey “great houses.” The sites were linked by an elaborate system of carefully engineered and constructed roads, many of which can still be traced. These achievements are particularly remarkable given the harsh environment of the region.” – UNESCO World Heritage List

The designation as a World Heritage Site besides being a National Park protects the site for future generations.

In a Nutshell – FAQ

  1. What are Aztec Ruins in the Four Corners area of the US?

    Contrary to what the name suggests, Aztec Ruins were built by the same Ancestral Puebloan people who also built Chaco, and other sites in the vicinity; They are the ancestors of several present-day Pueblo tribes of the Southwest. Called by archaeologists an outlier of Chaco, the ancient site at Aztec is also described by the modern-day Pueblo tribes as a longer stop on their migration journey.

  2. Who were the Ancestral Puebloans?

    The Ancestral Puebloans who built Aztec Ruins, along with the larger Chaco, Mesa Verde, and several others, were the ancestors of the present-day modern Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna.

  3. When did Aztec Ruins become a National Park?

    After years of looting, the need to protect Aztec Ruins resulted in its designation as a National Monument in 1923. Part of the US National Park System, the site is known as Aztec Ruins National Monument.

  4. How is the known archaeologist Earl Morris connected to Aztec Ruins?

    The first archaeologist who excavated Aztec Ruins in the US Four Corners, Earl Morris lived in the house that is now the Visitor Center, while working there. He is better known though for reconstructing the Great Kiva, the only fully reconstructed one in the US Southwest.

  5. Where is Aztec Ruins National Monument?

    Aztec Ruins National Monument is in the state of New Mexico, in the Four Corners area of the US Southwest.

  6. When Did Aztec Ruins Become A UNESCO Heritage Site?

    Aztec Ruins National Monument is a designated UNESCO Heritage Site since 1987, as part of the Chaco Culture World Heritage Site.

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Aztec Ruins in New Mexico
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins in the US Southwest

17 thoughts on “Explore Aztec Ruins In The Four Corners Area Of The Desert Southwest”

  1. Wow, this is so interesting! I learned about the Aztecs in school and was fascinated right away. I’d love to visit a place to learn more about that ancient culture.

  2. Very interesting read. I didn’t know that the Anasazi were the ancestors of the Pueblo tribes. I am always intrigued by the history and culture of these ancient people. Pinned this for later.

    1. It’s only relatively recently that it became common knowledge. For a long time, they used to say “the Anasazi mysteriously disappeared”… it’s only in the open now, since they have better communication with e present’day tribes.

  3. It is interesting that the assumption was that the ruins were built by the Aztecs. I wish they would change the name though. It’s not too late! I feel like it is a disservice to the people that built the site. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    1. That green line intrigues me, too, Sharon. So far I didn’t find (or missed) a good explanation for it, but I’m interested to know… it reminds me of the serpent motive of the Mayans, but I haven’t seen any indication that they are related.

  4. I admit I haven’t heard of this place, but there are so many Aztec ruins, a lot are unheard of. That is why these post are so interesting and informing. Love the museum telling different perspectives, that must have been so interesting. Pinned. #feetdotravel

    1. I like the different perspectives, too, Angie. Gives you a better understanding of the culture – past, and present. Though they are Pueblo, not Aztec ruins, that is a misnomer; I wish they changed the name…

  5. When we visited Utah and Arizona we planned to go through the Four Corners but never made it. Interesting that these ruins were first attributed to the Aztecs even though they never were in the area. Strange that the Ancestral Puebloans built such a big community but didn’t live there long. But great that it has been maintained for visitors and has a UNESCO designation. Means more people will get to learn about this civilization.

    1. At some point, it would be worth driving through Four Corners; it is a gorgeous place! Early explorers only knew about the Aztecs, they couldn’t fathom other civilizations living on this continent… Yes, everyone finds it strange that they didn’t live very long in places they built up so much. But if you listen to their descendants, they find it perfectly logical. The way I heard them put it, was “Just because you don’t plan to live in a place forever, you still want to make it comfortable for as long as you are there.”

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