What is there to see at Aztec ruins? Aztec Ruins National Monument is a small place, but has a big offering. The restored great kiva is worth the visit by itself but there are also well preserved rooms with the ceilings intact, great examples of fine Chaco-style architecture, and it is easily accessible. Let me give you a sample with this mini tour [Note: this week you have the option of watching a video with each section]:
[video] The great house, Aztec West, is only a few steps from the visitor center. In the 1100’s it was a three-story building with over 500 rooms and many kivas including the restored great kiva in the plaza. Right away you come face-to-face with the west wall where the significance of unique green rows of greywacke stone hauled from nearby quarries is a mystery. We can only guess at reasons for the inclusion by the original masons.
[video] As you follow the trail along the west wall [of the Aztec West great house] you can peer into some of the outer rooms. Most of the rooms were for storage, some were burial chambers, and one has a vented chamber suggesting it may have been a residence.
[video] We are now inside the great house at Aztec Ruins where the visitor trail allows us to explore
[video] Two rooms in the Aztec Ruins Great House are very interesting. One room once contained a door, but then the room was sealed off. Perhaps it was a burial chamber or was filled with trash and access was no longer needed.
Next to the sealed off room is a square room that has many of the characteristics of a kiva including benches around the outside and a vent chamber on the south side. All kivas were built inside a square room, but this one is missing the characteristic enclosed, round walls. Maybe it was just too small.
[video] T-shaped doors became common in Chaco-style great houses after being introduced by the Mesa Verde outliers. They look strange but had an exquisitely practical function.
They were built this way so that occupants carrying a load from the plaza with their arms full could easily enter the room.
[video] In one of the two great kivas in the plaza at Aztec Ruins, The timbers resting atop one another demonstrate the lower part of a domed, cribbed roof. A cribbed roof uses many more large timbers than a flat, horizontal roof so archaeologists believe that Chacoan kivas with domed roofs were used less often. The restored great kiva across the plaza demonstrates the more traditional flat roof.
[Video] The reconstructed great kiva is what Aztec Ruins is most famous for.
After Earl Morris excavated the great kiva in 1921, exposure took its tole and it weathered away. So, the park service decided that rather than bury what was left, they would bring Mr. Morris back to consult on the reconstruction. Everything in the reconstruction is based upon evidence Morris had found in his excavation.
The huge room could have held hundreds of people. A smaller room may have hidden the performers while people entered. The main room had a square floor vault where the sacred fire greeted guests entering from the south. Two large, rectangular foot drums would have echoed loudly as dancers stomped on would covers.
[Video] The main room of the great kiva was built to facilitate impressive productions. Sacred fires crackled from the square hearth. Foot drums of different sizes produced different sounds as the dancers stomped on them. The four sandstone discs originally supported each of the four pillars to keep them from settling under the weight of the massive roof. Small rooms encircled the main room with ladder access. Perhaps to enable dancers to flood dramatically into the room?
[Video] Encircling the main room of the great kiva at Aztec are small antechambers. Someone could descend into the room by using the ladder built in to the wall. The room also had a door to the outside.
By the late 1200's, the Ancestral Pueblo culture in Aztec like the other Chacoan great houses gave up on this site and abandoned it. The people moved south and established new pueblos as the Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo cultures of today.
-- Courtney Miller
Want more? Watch this five-part video tour by Ranger Tracy Bodnar