House-on-Fire Ruin  Pastel on paper  by Akiko Hirano


Tim Wong & Akiko Hirano

Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan.

“These patterns were imprinted with knots tied on a string,” said the anthropologist, holding up a small clay tablet. “That’s the characteristic that gives this culture its name – ‘Jomon’ 縄文 means cord pattern.” “Why did they do that, did the patterns serve any functions?” Kuro-e asked, looking at the collection of early Japanese earthenware, some over 10,000 years old, all decorated with intricate knot patterns. “Well, as far as we can tell, the imprints were an esthetic expression,” Dr. Ito replied with a shrug. “Human needs beauty. Remember, these people lived at a time not that long after the last ice-age, when the basic act of survival was a daily challenge, yet they had the need and appreciation for beauty. I have great admiration for that.”

Jomon clay tablet

Spring, Southern Utah.
Summer had come early, it was another hot day. The shallow canyon was overgrown with lush vegetations. Pockets of rain water still remained on the bedrock. For the past week, Kuro-e had seen many Anasazi ruins, most of them high up on inaccessible cliffs, she did not expect to find any ruins in the shallow confine of this canyon. She rounded a corner and came upon a broad sloping rock platform. To her surprise, a well-preserved Anasazi ruin sat in a shallow alcove at the top of that platform, only steps away from the wash. She walked up to the ruin and recognized it was the ruin called ‘House on Fire’.

The four stone-and-mortar rooms were tucked under a large overhang. Despite their easy-to-access location, they were remarkably well-preserved. Their walls mostly intact, one room still had a few Anasazi corncobs on the sandy floor. The location of this ruin was unusual. Unlike most other ruins she had seen, it was totally exposed and lacked any defensive barriers against invaders. It had, however, one particularly striking feature. The massive overhanging roof of the rock above the ruin was deeply grooved in a twisted tangle of swirls and ridges, and was colored in reddish-orange that gave the illusion of fire.

Continuing up the canyon, she came to a tall overhanging cliff overlooking a deep pool. She spotted another ruin high up near the top, nestled in two adjacent caves. Through binoculars, the left cave appeared to contain a dwelling shielded by a curved wall with a square loophole in its center. The right cave had three separate buildings, protected by a long wall spanning the entire rim of the cave. A narrow passage complete with steps ascended into the interior of the cave. It was truly a formidable setting. Kuro-e managed to climb up to the next level below the ruin, but decided not to proceed any farther.

On her way back, she thought about the contrast between the two ruins she just saw. One was almost open to any visitors; the other was virtually impregnable. Why would some people choose to build their home in an exposed indefensible location while their neighbors were living high up on an inaccessible cliff? She was pondering that irony when she arrived at the first ruin again. What she saw stunned her. Afternoon sunlight bouncing off the sloping rock platform painted the ruin with a brilliant glow. She walked up to the ruin and lay down on the warm rock, tilting her head back to take in the spectacle overhead. The whole roof was afire with dancing flames! She now understood just how truly magnificent and unique that site was. 

Cliff  dwelling  Photo by Tim Wong

Corrugated pottery shard

Before leaving, Kuro-e made one last round looking for artefacts around that ruin. A small gray stone half-buried in the sand caught her eyes. It was a pottery shard with beautiful corrugation. Turning the shard in her hand, she remembered her conversation with Dr. Ito. The oldest Japanese Jomon pottery was over 10,000 years. Anasazi pottery did not appear until about 200 AD, long after Bering land-bridge went underwater. People separated on the two continents both developed pottery and refined it to an art form. Esthetic expression. Suddenly, it all became clear. These people built their home in this location for the same reason they made corrugated pottery. They needed beauty, even when survival was a daily struggle. She gave the ruin one last admiring look, then put the shard back in the sand and started walking down the canyon.