On The Road: Aztec Ruins
places I've been
The changes that I've left
I look at myself to find
I've done it the hard way
Aztec Ruins is shorthand for the National Monument of aboriginal Pueblo structures covering 320 acres in northwestern New Mexico. The word Pueblo is Spanish for village.
The designation Aztec Ruins is actually a deceptive misnomer that came about because of a case of mistaken identity. In the mid-nineteenth century early European-American settlers attributed the architecture to the Aztec civilization of central Mexico, hence the site's name and also of the modern nearby town.
In reality this amazing stone city was constructed by the Anasazi--the Ancient Ones who are steeped in mystery and haunt our imaginations.
The term Anasazi came into common usage amongst archeologists, but it is not without controversy. Many contemporary Pueblo people--Zuni and Hopi--object to the term and some are even offended because it was coined by the Navajo and means ancestral enemies.
However one chooses to refer to them, there is much we can learn nowadays from the complex mosaic of footprints left behind. What they accomplished and how they recorded their stories in stone still reverberate along the corridors of time.
The Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo People were not primitives, but rather, progressive thinkers who nurtured and mastered an intimate knowledge of a vast and inhospitable environment. They adapted and overcame in a land of extremes where survival without the conveniences of air conditioning and central heat seems impossible. Their vibrant culture was concentrated on the present-day Four Corners--southeast Utah, northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and southwest Colorado.
A paragraph on a souvenir we purchased provides a concise overview: "Ancient roadways radiate from the stone remnants of great houses and ceremonial buildings belonging to this once thriving ancestral Puebloan community. A strong regional influence from A.D. 1050 to 1280, Aztec Ruins National Monument endures in the lives and traditions of today's American Indians."
To put this era in the context of Anglo-Saxon milestones: The Ancient Pueblo People dominated the high desert plateaus of what became the southwestern United States from before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which established William the Conqueror on the throne of England, until after King John was pressured into signing the Magna Carta in 1215, a seminal document which set the framework in place to protect individual liberty and begin to restrict the monarchy's power.
By the late 1200s the Ancient Pueblo People were gone. They packed up and relocated away from the Four Corners region. Some traveled south to the better water supplies of the Rio Grande drainage and others west into Arizona, where their descendants can be found today.
There's no firm consensus among archeologists and historians as to what caused the migration. Likely there was no singular reason--several factors intersected: Social, political, religious issues, or severe drought. Two hundred plus years of agricultural activity could have depleted the soil of its nutrients. Or perhaps the Anasazi moved on simply because of the ageless lure of faraway places.
Travel Guide & Photo Array
The remarkable settlement was built overlooking the Animas River, which irrigates the plains of northwestern New Mexico. We arrived bright and early on a Friday morning, with a broad landscape of blue skies overhead. The roof of the world was stunning to behold, which I've come to determine is customary and usual in this enchanted section of planet earth.
There was a quiet sense of the sacred in the air, which could only be missed by those refusing to be touched by it. Having an insatiable curiosity, this excursion was an opportunity for me to glean fragments of wisdom from bygone seekers.
Consider this foundational information quoted from the Travel Guide: "A PLACE BY FLOWING WATERS: To Pueblo People, a place that has a story--a place where things happened that were about life, spirit, and community--is simple that place The People think about. The story of this Place by Flowing Waters is rooted in a larger story that has oriented Pueblo People since the beginning of time. It is the story of Pueblo emergence, the story of the first people, how they came to be, and how they journeyed as a people to find and be with life."
"Early exploration here focused on this structure, the West Ruin. For centuries, the tops of sandstone walls jutted above a brush-covered mound, hinting at the large building beneath. About 150 yards beyond this structure is another large unexcavated mound, which is closed to the public. This East Ruin looks much as the West Ruin did before excavation. Archeologist Earl Morris began the first scientific excavation in 1916. He and his crew removed the overburden to reveal this building and thousands of artifacts. About 400 adjacent rooms, rising to three stories in places, enclose a central plaza. A large, round, semi-subterranean building, the Great Kiva, dominates the plaza. Within a mile are scores of other structures, indicating an extensive, planned community."
At the first stop, I read the Travel Guide cover to cover. Here's a reality for those who don't know me: I'd never think about even looking at instructions to put something together or to hook up the latest electronic gizmo, but anything to do with history, and I devour it. I am one of the fortunate few who seriously believes that the past is always prelude to the present and future--the past echoes in the present and inevitably ripples into the future.
Anita, with a portion of the smaller structures over her left shoulder. One area, not captured in this photo, was marked off limits by orange pylons. A couple workers in park ranger garb were excavating and moving dirt around.
From this point, we headed inside a long section of living quarters.
To say that these are tight quarters would be an understatement. The rooms were homes or apartments linked together by narrow passageways. The ceilings are low and heavy--almost claustrophobic.
From the Travel Guide: "The inner rooms are intimate spaces. During the winter, mothers prepared food while children slept, dreamed, and played. Grandmothers and grandfathers told stories by the light of the fire. Men and boys wove cotton cloth and yucca fiber blankets, prepared hunting arrows, or made ceremonial clothing and jewelry. Women, young and old, made pottery or ground corn on stone metates. There was a natural rhythm to their life, an order which kept time with the days, the seasons, and sacred cycles of nature. Imagine living here at that time. Smell the aroma of corn and venison stew simmering in clay pots over a fire of cedar and piñon wood. Feel the presence of The People."
Here we are taking turns having a seat in one of the larger openings.
The next part of the adventure is outside to survey earthworks and ceremonial buildings surrounding a spacious plaza. Much of daily life took place in community all around the plaza and on rooftops.
The variety and massive scale of the construction is extraordinary, suggesting master builders were operating with a big picture plan in mind. The orientation of the residences and public buildings to the Great Kiva, which was the hallowed centerpiece, is evidence of the vitality and importance religion had for the Ancient Pueblo People. Day to day tasks were performed in the shadow of the Great Kiva, a reminder that life was a continual quest for harmony and balance.
The Ancient Pueblo People were expert at using plant life to provide the essential necessities of life--shelter, fuel, food, clothes, tools, and medicine.
In the photo above I am standing in front of an ample Yucca, which was put to many uses. Yucca fruit would be eaten raw or baked. The roots were used as soap. What I found extremely intriguing was that the fibers were processed and woven into cordage used in construction and manufacturing. The yucca fiber was versatile, and could be woven to various thicknesses and strengths. It had a wide range of applications--from securing house beams to lashing ladder rungs to making blankets, bowstrings, and sewing animal hides together.
To the left of Anita is a Utah Juniper tree, on her right sagebrush. Juniper berries were eaten by themselves or used to season meat, especially tasty in a venison mix. A juniper-sprig tea was brewed for women in labor or immediately after childbirth. In another example of exceptional creativity, the bark of the juniper could be altered to be used as cordage, insulation, toilet paper, and even diapers.
Sagebrush had extensive applications for the Anasazi. The leaves were a source of iron and vitamin C. It was a treatment for indigestion, and brewed to a kill or cure concoction, sagebrush expelled parasitic worms. The sagebrush wood burns extremely hot so it was a reliable fuel, though the smoke has a pungent odor, which is why it was put to use as a fumigant in rituals.
An exterior view of the Great Kiva--not all that impressive. Merely a round-walled edifice surrounded by a wide expanse of clear space. However, this is another case where Aesop had it right: Appearances often are deceiving. Stepping inside was a goosepimply experience.
Walking around the perimeter of the interior, I was impressed by the detail and complexity, and was reminded of the precise instructions for the completion of Solomon's Temple in long ago Israel.
The tall ceiling might increase perception of size, but there is no doubt that the room is incredibly huge. For the Ancient Pueblo People the chamber or sanctuary of this Great Kiva symbolized the womb of the Earth Mother, from whom The People came. I sat down, relaxed, and jettisoned clutter. In my mind's eye I let the wonder of the past flow over me. It was awe-inspiring and good for my soul.
A final excerpt from the Travel Guide: "At the very beginning of this Place by Flowing Waters, The People gathered to build a Great Kiva. In so doing, they enacted the joining of the primal pairing of nature that bonded them as one people, male and female: Sky and Earth, sun and moon, winter and summer. The Great Kiva represented the First house created by The People upon their emergence from the Earth's Navel. The Great Kiva was the place where all the clans met to celebrate that First Story. The Great Kiva was the center of the Cosmos, where the six sacred directions symbolically came together, where The People reconnected with their spiritual and mythic origins and were nourished by the spiritual Center, the Earth's Navel. Imagine the Great Kiva filled with The People of this Place by Flowing Waters as they awaited the first rays of sunlight on the summer solstice. This a sacred event, the beginning of a new cycle of life celebrated by all people. It was a time of renewal and thanksgiving. As you sit in the Great Kiva, you too are participating in this Celebration of Life. You have walked the footsteps of The People of this Place by Flowing Waters. Remember that place that The People think about."
- Wanted Man
Wanted Man a.k.a. Ken R. Abell, seeks to be a blessing to others. He's a rake, a rambler, and a teller of tales who understands that there is strength in a story well told and well lived. To learn more, inquire or schedule him, visit this web site.
- On The Road: New Mexico
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