Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 13, 2010

Not Aztecs or Anasazi, but ancestral Puebloans

Walking out of the cool visitor center, the heat smacked us in the face. Husband Art wasn't particularly excited about being out where the temperature was in the 90s. But being someone who is always on the lookout for a deal, as soon as he discovered there was no entrance fee at the national monument on that particular weekend and the parking was free, he was up for it.

We were on our way home after spending several days with the Gold Orchestra on their tour through the Southwest, but had parted ways with them that morning in Farmington, New Mexico. Their scheduled 16-hour bus ride back home to Manhattan held little appeal for us, so we had opted to drive our own vehicle and to split the return trip into two days.

The previous evening, Art had surfed the Internet and looked through brochures to see what sites in the area might be interesting. To me, the ruins at nearby Aztec sounded inviting and for Art, the fact that it was in the direction toward home was a bonus.

The ruins, just five miles from Farmington, are not related to the Aztec culture of central Mexico. But early settlers mistakenly thought that people from the Aztec Empire created the striking buildings. The name has remained, even after it became clear that the builders were the ancestors of many Southwestern tribes. Archaeologists for many years called the people who built Aztec and other places throughout the Southwest the "Anasazi" - a word they adopted from the Navajo language that they understood to mean "old people." However, most Pueblo people prefer the term "ancestral Puebloans."

Ancestral Pueblo people had long lived in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah, and from the late 1000s to the late 1200s, they planned and built a settlement on a terrace overlooking the Animas River on the edge of the current-day town of Aztec. In the early years, the settlement was strongly influenced by their contact with people living further south in New Mexico. It prospered as a regional administrative, trade and ceremonial center. It included large and small public structures as well as buildings called "kivas" that had large circular chambers and were used for ceremonies.

We weren't really prepared for the blazing sun and the way it was reflected by the sandy soil. So after Art and I had wandered around the ruins for awhile, we took refuge in the reconstructed "great kiva" to cool off. The large stone benches were cool to the touch and lowered the temperature of our bodies. The quietness and space created an air of serenity that made me feel as if I were in a church.

The ruins reminded me of the Inca ruins I'd seen at Machu Picchu in Peru and the pre-Inca ones at Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku) in Bolivia. Stones of different sizes fit perfectly together - and without the use of mortar in many places. And all three civilizations revered their sites as sacred.

By the late 1200s, the Puebloans had moved from Aztec and the Four Corners area. No one knows why they left, although those who have studied the people think it might have been because of drought or perhaps for social, religious or political reasons. They moved south to the Rio Grande area and west into Arizona, where their descendants live today. Yet many American Indians maintain deep spiritual ties with this place through oral tradition, prayer and ceremony.

When we had completed our walking tour, we returned to the visitor center to look at artifacts that had been unearthed during archaeological excavations in the early 1900s. The exhibits of stone and wood tools, cotton and feather clothing, fiber sandals and mats, pottery, and jewelry made of turquoise, obsidian, and shell showed the people's use of local resources as well as their trade with distant peoples. Today's ceramics, jewelry and other art also reflect the materials, colors and nature found in the area.

Near the entrance to the small museum, Flo and Lee Vallo, master Acoma potters, were working. I picked up one of their small burnt-orange pots. I liked the color and the diamond-back lizard and yucca plant painted in white. Then I put it down, telling myself I didn't need one more thing at home to dust.

But it kept calling my name and before long, I had bought it. Later I read that Pueblo people say "the clay remembers the hands that made it."

I'm glad I purchased it. It's neither old nor of my family, but somehow when I look at it, I can see a connection between it and those people of 1,000 years ago ... people who carved a living out of a beautiful, yet harsh landscape and left an intriguing monument that made our trip to the Southwest all the more memorable.

Left: Art, cutting a fine figure among the ruins. Right top: great kiva; bottom: my diamond-back lizard pot.

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