May 2017 – After spending some quality time with the alien eggs at Bisti Badlands in New Mexico, we took our RV about 50 miles north to Aztec Ruins National Monument near Farmington, New Mexico. We’ve visited a lot of ancient Indian ruins over the years, but this site was astonishing because of its sheer size.
The “Aztec” ruins are not Aztec at all. Those people were way down south in today’s Mexico City. The name was given by early discoverers of the New Mexico site who may or may not have known better.
These ruins were actually built by the Ancestral Puebloan people about 900 years ago.
This particular site is startling because it contains as many as 400 rooms! Most of the rooms are square or rectangular and abut each other, however there are quite a few circular structures too, some of which are thought to have been ceremonial.
The first thing we saw as we entered Aztec Ruins National Monument was the Great Kiva, a large round structure that has been stabilized and renovated several times since the 1930’s.
It is now a very modern feeling building, and as we walked through it Indian sounding music played softly in the background to give the place a certain air.
After walking through the Great Kiva we passed several more round structures.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is called a “Great House,” and when it was first discovered several of the rooms had quite a bit of pottery in them as well as grain. It is thought that some people lived here beacuse there is evidence of smoke from fires in some of the rooms. But it is also thought that it was a ceremonial gathering place.
As we walked through the rooms, we passed through a “T” shaped doorway. This reminded me of the “T” shaped windows we saw in the Mayan ruins in Palenque in southern Mexico and the “T” shaped doorways we saw in the ancient Khmer ruins in Cambodia (I haven’t posted those pics yet).
Although the ancient Khmer people were building Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in Cambodia at about the same time the Ancestral Puebloans were building this site and many others in the American Southwest, the Mayan structures in southern Mexico actually pre-dated them by about six hundred years.
Even though these ruins are not on a scale of complexity or size that is anywhere near those in Cambodia or southern Mexico, it is still fascinating to walk from room to room and contemplate what life might have been like back when it was being built and occupied.
This stuff definitely gives me a thrill, but Mark doesn’t get quite as excited about it.
We both had to laugh as we remembered visiting exotic Monte Alban outside Oaxaca Mexico when I wondered out loud about the communities that had lived there and the succession of builders who had created the mammoth temples.
I mused that first there were the Zapotecs, and then the Mixtecs, and later the Aztecs… after which Mark had joked that next came the Discotecs followed by the Village People.
I love traveling because it allows us to share a moment in time with people from all over the place who are living in the same world but have very different backgrounds and histories than ours. By the same token, I love seeing ancient ruins because they allow us to share a place, if not a moment in time, with a culture and group of people who stood in the exact same spot many centuries ago.
Ironically, we also share the spot with all the discoverers and archaeologists who have examined these same ruins in the light of their own cultures and personal histories, whether it was the mid-1800’s when “Aztec Ruins” was first uncovered, or the 1930’s when it was studied yet again, or today.
If only the walls could talk.
I always find it kind of amusing, though, that so many aspects of ancient cultures get attributed to ceremony and spiritual beliefs. It sometimes seems as if the archaeologists believe that ancient people lived largely in the spiritual realm and not so much in the here and now.
A work camper at Tonto National Monument surprised me when she mentioned that a modern archaeologist was pursuing a line of thinking that much of the exquisite pottery that was created by the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Southwest was actually made just for trading purposes. She said the thought was that perhaps the pottery was manufactured in large quantities, and stockpiled, and warehoused for distribution. Apparently there is evidence in many ancient sites from the American Southwest on down into Mexico that this could have been the case.
I love this idea because it gives the ancient people a kind of sophistication and practicality and accessibility to our own culture that is often absent when everything they built or pecked out of rock walls is seen solely through the lens of ceremonial spirituality.
Back in 4th Grade, I remember my teacher reading a document to our class about a very strange group of people who had extraordinary ceremonial body grooming customs that they performed on a daily basis in a very special shrine they found in every home. They were the Nacirema People.
Our class was studying ancient Greece, and our teacher wanted show us the challenges that archaeologists and anthropologists face as they study various cultures both current and ancient.
As she read this anthropological study to the class (link below), the Nacirema seemed very odd. They had a very involved “mouth-rite” that they performed daily because of a strongly held belief that if they didn’t do this ritual their teeth would fall out.
As we listened to our teacher we kind of shrugged because we saw weird stuff like that on National Geographic shows on TV fairly often. It seemed perfectly believable.
She read to us about the Medicine Men who would visit certain members of the Nacirema tribe who spent all day lying in beds in a special temple called a latipsoh, and she read to us about a very painful ritual where the Medicine Man jabbed tribal members in their arms with a needle.
We also learned about the unusual witch doctors who were “listeners” that encouraged tribal members to pour out all their woes, going back to early childhood.
It was only as our teacher got near the end of the document that a few brighter buttons in the class began to snicker. I wasn’t one of them.
When our teacher finished reading to us, she stood up and put the word “Nacirema” on the blackboard, writing it from right to left. Then she put up the word “latipsoh” and wrote it from right to left as well.
The light bulb suddenly went on for the whole class, and we were all in stitches. She read the whole essay a second time and we were all doubled over in laughter throughout.
Ever since then, I’ve been a little skeptical about attributing too much spirituality and religious ceremony to the various relics that the ancients left behind!
No matter what the fabulous buildings at Aztec Ruins National Monument were used for — whether it was housing, product warehousing, or spiritual gatherings — it is a terrific site that evokes a thousand questions and answers very few.
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More info about Aztec Ruins National Monument:
- Aztec Ruins National Monument – Official NPS Website
- Aztec Ruins National Monument — New Mexico – Book by John M. Corbett
- Body Ritual Among the Nacirema People – Anthropological Study by Horace Miner
- Ruins Road RV Park – Right near the ruins
- RV Parks near Aztec New Mexico – RV Park Reviews
- RV Parks near Farmington New Mexico – RV Park Reviews
- Location of Aztec Ruins National Monument – Interactive Google Maps
Other blog posts about Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Southwest:
- Bandelier National Monument – Fun Pueblo Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico!
- Aztec Ruins National Monument – Whispers from the Ancients in New Mexico!
- Tonto National Monument AZ – Workamping with the Ancients!
- Tonto National Monument AZ – Lower Cliff Dwellings
- Montezuma’s Castle & Schnebly Hill – Sedona Heights!
- Mesa Verde National Park, CO – Life on the Edge with the Ancients
- Wupatki Nat’l Monument – Ancient Indian Ruins & Great Camping in AZ!
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