Located in the Northwestern part of New Mexico, there’s no denying that Aztec Ruins National Monument is a special place. But the name “Aztec Ruins” is a bit of a misnomer.
Early white settlers to the region believed that the ruins had been populated by the Aztec people—the nearby town and the ruins were named “Aztec” as a result.
It wasn’t until Earl H Morris began excavation in 1916, that the archeologist asserted the ruins did not belong to the Aztecs after all. The inhabitants of this village were actually the ancient Puebloan people, also known as the Anasazi.
It is believed that the ancient Puebloans began construction of the dwellings around 1100 A.D. Throughout the next couple of centuries, more structures were built and the ancient Puebloans continued to thrive.
Morris and his wife, Ann Axtell Morris, lived at the ruins and uncovered much of what is seen by visitors today. Most notably, they discovered the remains of the Great Kiva— an underground gathering place that was used for special ceremonies.
Much of the Great Kiva was rebuilt under Morris’ direction and today it is the largest kiva still in existence. The ½ mile walk around the Aztec Ruins ends at the kiva, and much of the park, as well as this unique sacred space, inspires awe and wonder in its’ visitors.
An Ancient Solstice Ritual
Across the world, many ancient peoples marked the passing of the seasons by using architectural solar observations.
While we may never know the full story behind these solar observations, we do know that the Puebloans built their structures in alignment with the winter and summer solstices.
The north wall of Aztec West is aligned with the winter solstice in late December, while the east end is aligned with the summer solstice in late June.
When standing in front of the north wall on the winter solstice, the setting sun is aligned with the ancient structure. Here, viewers can witness the phenomenon of the pausing sun, which is where the word “solstice” is derived. In Latin, “Sol” translates to the sun, while “sisto” translates to stop.
As the earth is on an axis, and the sun appears to move from our standpoint, it is on the winter solstice that the sun will pause on its journey southward and begin to move northward. It will continue this journey until the summer solstice, at which point it will pause again, and move southward.
Presumably, the ancient Puebloans marveled as the sun stood still during the wintertime from this vantage point.
Celebrating the Winter Solstice Today
Visitors to the park will be able to stand in the footsteps of the ancient Puebloans and watch with wonder as the December sun sets in alignment with the north wall.
The National Park Service is hosting an event on Friday, December 21 and Saturday, December 22 to mark this celestial occurrence. Visitors must arrive by 4:30 p.m. to participate, at which time rangers will escort participants to the alignment location.
There will also be a ranger-guided program held before sunset at 3:45 p.m. and after the sunset, around 5:00 pm. During both of these programs, a ranger will be available to explain more about the park, the traditions of the Puebloans, and the astronomy of the winter sky in New Mexico.
Regardless of where you are on the winter solstice, it’s amazing to think that this is a solar occurrence that has been celebrated since ancient times. It’s even more incredible, that our national parks hold space for such traditions to carry on. How will you celebrate today’s solstice?
Jersey Griggs is a freelance travel writer for hire. Residing in Portland, Maine, Jersey plans to celebrate the winter solstice with an outdoor bonfire and good company. To learn more about Jersey, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.