Aztec Ruins
Administrative History
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The Animas River heads in the snow melt of the lofty La Plata Mountains of southwestern Colorado and then tumbles southward some 45 miles through successive alpine breaks as it rapidly loses elevation. Near the New Mexico state line it enters the northern bulwarks of the San Juan Basin, where it begins to flatten out in meanders through worn-down glacial moraines paved with cobblestones and sparsely covered with sage, fourwing saltbush, chamiza, yucca, and pinyon. [1] By the river itself is a more riparian environment featuring cottonwoods and willows.

The terraces and bottom lands along this lower route, at an elevation more than a mile high, once witnessed the rise, evolution, and disappearance of a unique Native American civilization (see Figure 1.1). In spite of a century of unmitigated Euro-American impact, signs of this civilization still pepper the terrain. As the Animas swings westward to merge into the larger San Juan River, most prominent among the remains is a complex of some 13 distinct constructions located approximately 400 yards to the west of the river's northwestern bank, now collectively known as the Aztec Ruins. [2] This grouping once likely functioned as an administrative, trade, and ceremonial hub for numerous smaller, contemporaneous, satellite communities scattered about the gravelly uplands and valley floor and may have represented them in the broader organization structure archeologists now term the Chaco Phenomenon. Modern research has determined that, for unknown reasons, all the settlements, large and small, were deserted before A.D. 1300.

Figure 1.1. Map showing location of Aztec Ruins between the Mesa Verde region to the northwest and Chaco Canyon to the south.

Several categories of artifacts taken from the largest ruin suggest the possibility of sporadic usage of the abandoned structure by some protohistoric Native Americans. Nomadic peoples later moving in to fill the void left by departing sedentary town dwellers generally paid the emptied old houses little heed, as they slowly slumped back to earth and vanished from the common memory. However, among examples of a possible post-abandonment Indian presence are the bones of a baby strapped to a cradle board. A ranger found them in 1945 when cleaning weeds and dirt off the extreme southwest corner of the courtyard of the largest settlement. A multiple burial there just barely covered by earth contained an adult accompanied by prehistoric pottery in addition to the infant. Ethnologist Leslie Spier identified the cradle board as either Ute, Northern Pueblo, or possibly a combination of traits of the two. [3] Recent catalogers recognized as more recent than the ruins themselves a few potsherds that might be of Pueblo IV time or of Ute manufacture and a finely tanned leather bag that appears of Ute origin. [4]

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006