October 9 2009 by Sam Lowe
As I grow older, I am finding a deeper appreciation for older things. Particularly for things that are older than I am. Having adopted that attitude, I eagerly look forward to excursions into northwestern New Mexico because they have old things there that are really old.
Primarily, they are Indian ruins, ancient reminders that white men were not the first to inhabit the land. They bear such names as Chaco Canyon, the Salmon Ruin and Aztec Ruins National Monument. Each is distinctive, yet their origins are similar. And Chaco Canyon is the most spectacular.
Officially known as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the site contains evidence of 10,000 years of human occupation, and several of the structures within its boundaries are (or were) immense, some of them covering several acres. The canyon is best known for these large-scale, multi-storied buildings that were planned and constructed more than a thousand years ago by ancestors of the Hopi and New Mexico Pueblo peoples.
Those who study such things believe that from 850 A.D. until 1150 A.D., the area was the center of a vast political, religious ceremonial and trade network that encompassed a large portion of the Southwest. The public buildings contained within its boundaries, also known as great houses, were built using a core and veneer masonry system that added to the strength and stability of the massive structures.
Chaco Canyon is about 45 miles southeast of Farmington. Take U.S. 550 south to Blanco Trading Post, then southwest on State Route 57 to the site. Be forewarned, however, that the last few miles along SR 57 are unpaved and rather lumpy. For details, log on to www.wnpa.org.
The Aztec Ruins are a bit of a misnomer because there were never any Aztecs in the region. Early white settlers mistakenly assumed that the site was originally built by people of the famed Aztec Empire in Mexico, but archaeologists later determined that the builders were actually ancestors of many southwestern tribes, now generally called "ancestral Puebloans."
Nomadic people began living in the area about 2,000 years ago, and became accomplished farmers, artisans, architects and traders. The first scientific excavation of the Aztec Ruins began in 1916 when centuries of built-up sediment was removed to reveal what is now called the West Ruin. The excavators also discovered about 400 adjacent rooms, some rising as high as three stories, that enclosed a central plaza. The plaza is dominated by the large round Great Kiva, which was built partially underground by workmen who carried sandstone blocks from quarries several miles away, then used stone hammers, mauls and pecking stones to break and dress the blocks.
The well-preserved ruins are located in the northern portion of the city of Aztec. More information is available at www.nps.gov/AZRU.
The Salmon Ruins trace their origins back to the late 11th Century A.D., when people from Chaco Canyon migrated to the banks of the San Juan River to build a community centered around a great house. After the Chacoan people left the area, perhaps due to extended drought, other regional tribes continued to live in the pueblo. But they also left around the end of the 13th Century, and the site was left undisturbed until the 1970s, when archaeological investigations began.
The site also contains the remnants of the George Salmon homestead, hence the name. It's one of the few remaining homesteaded properties in the area, so visitors can see a pioneer home, bunkhouse, dugout and historical implements.
The Salmon Ruins are located on Highway 64, two miles west of Bloomfield. For more information, log on to www.salmonruins.com.