Excavation of a Portion of the East Ruins, Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico



Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the southeast quarter (SE1/4) of the southwest quarter (SW1/4) of Section 4, T. 30 N., R. 11 W., New Mexico principal meridian, San Juan County, New Mexico, at approximately longitude 108° W. and latitude 36° 50' N., about one mile north of the town of Aztec. The elevation is 5,642 feet above sea level.


Situated in extreme northwestern New Mexico, the Aztec vicinity (figure 1) lies along the Animas River approximately 45 miles below its source in Colorado. For 20 miles the river runs through a deep gorge, but from Cedar Hill to its junction with the San Juan, 15 miles below Aztec, it flows through a valley from 1 to 2 miles wide, bordered alternately by alluvial bottoms and boulder-strewn bluffs. In this section the bottom lands are ideal for farming. Stands of cottonwood, willow, and other deciduous trees are found almost exclusively on the bottoms and along the immediate streambanks. Rugged, hilly zones extend to the north, rising to the La Plata mountain range of southwestern Colorado. Rock-strewn hills, for the most part unsuitable for farming, separate the Animas from adjacent drainages. On the adjoining hills and on the bluffs overlooking the river the vegetation is Upper Sonoran, characterized by big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), black greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), fourwing saltbush or "chico brush" (Atriplex canescens), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus sp.,), pricklypear (Opuntia sp.,), bee-spider-flower or "Rocky Mountain bee plant" (Cleome serrulata), datil yucca (Yucca baccata), one-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma), pinyon (Pinus edulis), and a few grass species such as blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), prairie june-grass (Koeleria cristata) and alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides).

FIGURE 1.—The San Juan Region. (click on image for a PDF version)

Deer still inhabit the surrounding foothills. Elk have retreated to the higher elevations in adjacent Colorado. Bighorn sheep are no longer found in the vicinity, but a protected herd of pronghorn has maintained itself just to the west, toward Farmington, for several years. Smaller mammals which still frequent the brush-covered 27 acres of the Monument include jackrabbit, cottontail, porcupine, rock squirrel, gopher, rat, several species of mice, and skunk.

A great many species of transient birds visit the area while in migratory flight: finches, warblers, sparrows, hawks, and ducks and other waterfowl. Local year-round residents are: blackbirds, crows, magpies, house or "English" sparrows, woodpeckers, jays, owls, and killdeer; while summer residents include robins, orioles, wrens, grosbeaks, phoebes and other flycatchers, and bluebirds.

Climatically, the Aztec area has pleasant summers, with high temperatures in the upper 90's and lows in the 40's. Late fall and winter bring snow and ice with temperatures dropping to sub-zero. Expected lows for short durations are -15°F to -20°F. Recorded maximum temperature is 101°F and a minimum of -26°F Average summer day-night temperature difference is 35°F. Average annual precipitation is approximately 10 inches, of which about one-third falls from June to September. Droughts and relatively open winters sometimes occur.

As the above suggests, the locality is considered semi-arid and irrigation or flood plain farming, whether native or modern, was and is necessary for successful agriculture. It is evident that the Indians successfully met this challenge throughout a period extending at least from Pueblo I to Pueblo III times, for along the Animas there are dozens of permanent village sites whose inhabitants subsisted mainly on domestic crops.

According to early settlers, irrigation canals were present near the ruins prior to eradication by modern farming. The late Sherman Howe, who moved to Aztec in 1880, reported that a canal could be traced easily in the 1880's for nearly 2 miles. It ran about halfway between the West Ruin and the hill and emptied into the Estes arroyo. The intake of this canal was on the Animas River some 3 miles above Aztec (Howe 1947:9). Morris also implies that the Animas was used for prehistoric irrigation (1919: 8).


The first actual description of the Aztec Ruins was by the geologist J. S. Newberry, who saw the site in August 1859. Lewis H. Morgan published the first ground plan and a further description from his visit of July 1879. From then on little of consequence appeared until the late Earl H. Morris began his systematic excavations in the West Ruin in 1916.

Within the Monument boundaries are two large Pueblo III structures, the East Ruin and the West Ruin, a smaller pueblo known as the Earl Morris Ruin, the Hubbard Mound, and eight additional mounds. Morris spent six field seasons in the excavation of the West Ruin (Morris 1919, 1921, 1924, 1928). In 1920 the American Museum of Natural History purchased the major ruins and 17 adjacent acres, deeding them to the United States. The area was proclaimed a National Monument in 1923. Later additions have enlarged the holdings to 27 acres.

Following Morris' work the National Park Service undertook the excavation of the Hubbard Mound, a tri-walled structure, in 1953 (Vivian 1959) and conducted tests in Mound F (ibid.). At an unspecified date, but undoubtedly sometime during 1916-1921, Morris also did some testing in the East Ruin. The only published reference to this work is in his La Plata studies (Morris 1939).

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Last Updated: 10-Jan-2008
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Western National Parks Association