Aztec Ruins
Administrative History
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In April 1916, Henry D. Abrams, owner of the land encompassing the major Aztec Ruins, formally agreed to allow the American Museum of Natural History to conduct excavations on a 40-acre section of his farm surrounding the ruins (see Appendix C). The museum chose to work on the largest of the sites. Since this was the era when patronage by wealthy individuals was prerequisite to expensive research, John P. Morgan donated $2,000 for the initial 1916 exploratory season. [1] After it was demonstrated to be a worthy undertaking, the project became part of the larger Archer M. Huntington Survey of the Southwest. A local newspaper mistakenly reported that the explorations were sponsored by the New York School of Archaeology. [2] Such an institution is not known to have existed.

The highly acclaimed American Museum of Natural History assigned the demanding task of uncovering the huge site of Aztec Ruin, with its potential significance to interpretation of regional prehistory, to Earl Morris. He was then a young man just out of college, who had notable digging experience but remained untested intellectually. The museum's decision reflects the scientific naivete of the early twentieth century. On the one hand, the museum expected Morris to direct a large untrained crew in gross earth removal and in delicate specimen retrieval. On the other hand, it assumed he would care for artifacts, catalogue them, keep a field and photographic log, attempt to reconstruct past human events from a silent incomplete record of discarded material goods, and eventually publish an appraisal suitable for both the benefit of the scientific community and for the interested public. The laymen demanded special consideration because some of them might fund similar museum endeavors. In addition, complete clearing and repair of the West Ruin, as the largest mound became known, was to be a corollary aspect of the total project. Clark Wissler, director of the museum's archeological programs, estimated that the effort would take five seasons of field work and cost about $10,000. Both figures subsequently proved unrealistic. The enormity of this challenge shrank before the vast self-confidence of this one frontier-bred researcher. Neither Morris nor his directors yet comprehended the inherent technical and cultural complexities, which today would engage the services of a dozen specialists and a large contingent of specially trained excavators and construction workers.

The first phase of the Aztec Ruin project was clearing the ruins of their nearly impenetrable covering of prickly vegetation in order to ascertain their dimensions. [3] Several trails snaked through the overgrowth to potholes opened by earlier explorers. Once all the tall obscuring brush was hacked and burned, three long high mounds left from deterioration of the east, west, and north arms of an edifice were exposed. A heap of cobbles several feet high suggested an arc of one-story rooms enclosing the south side of the pueblo. The settlement plan was a very large, multiroomed, rectangular building wrapped around an open courtyard. [4] The West Wing stood 20 feet high, the opposite East Wing only five feet at its lowest southern end, but the north side of the compound was more than 29 feet high and appeared to have stood three stories (see Figure 3.1). [5] The compound was placed on a leveled terrace that gently dipped southward. The remains of an enclosing southern village wall of sandstone backed by cobblestones approximately four and one-half feet high was reinforced by abutments at the east and west ends. Low steps gave access through the wall to the plaza.

West Ruin
Figure 3.1. West Ruin after being cleared at the beginning of the field season of 1916.

To quickly obtain specimens, Morris proposed to begin work at the West Ruin with trenching the refuse mound lying off the southeastern corner of the structure. He realized that to museum patrons, expedition success often was linked to the number of artifacts recovered. Trash heaps and the burials they sometimes sheltered frequently produced those things. Another consideration was that the refuse mound might be covered by the waste of later work. [6] Morris wrote Wissler, "Relatively few graves have been found in the immediate neighborhood of the pueblos, and beyond doubt in the low mounds to which I refer, there will be a great number of them together with much pottery." [7] The museum recognized the patron appetite for tangible returns. As a curator later commented, "There are a great many people who get more enthusiastic over nice specimens than they do over the solution of problems. We, naturally, like to please every one." [8] Nevertheless, the museum staff vetoed Morris's proposal.

In July, expedition work began at the southeastern corner of the West Ruin house complex itself. Morris probably was disappointed that his pothunting instincts were held in check while Nelson undertook to trench the seven-foot-deep deposits of the southeast refuse dump. Nelson hoped to establish a relevant chronology through stratigraphic analysis, wherein older materials, if undisturbed, were beneath more recent deposits. In this, he was disappointed.

Outfitting the project was simplified because no field camp was set up. Abrams offered the area of his farm located under some cottonwoods, but instead the dozen hired diggers went home at night. All that Morris had to acquire were hand tools, such as shovels, picks, mattocks, trowels, and axes; wheelbarrows to transport spoil dirt; and cement for anticipated repair work. He delayed erecting a planned 15-by-30-foot frame shed in the plaza to provide storage for equipment and recovered artifacts.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006