Moon House Ruins, Bear Ears Monument, Cedar Mesa

Moon House Ruins, Corridor   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Black Sun
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

June 13, 1257 AD.  It was almost noon on this stifling hot summer day. Moon-gazer squatted under a stunted pinyon pine that barely offered some shade from the fierce overhead sun. He was dejected after another unsuccessful hunt this morning. Wiping sweat from his brow, he looked out across the parched mesa under the cloudless sky, trying to remember when it rained last time. Must have been many full moons before, even the beavertail cacti had shriveled up. He had not seen any games for days, not even a rabbit. There was no point to keep trying, he picked up his bow and arrows and started to walk back to his pueblo. At that instant, a cool breeze swept across the mesa. The land suddenly turned dim, as if the sun was slipping behind some clouds. He looked up and was puzzled by what he saw. There were no clouds; the sun was broken! It had lost a chunk of its round edge as if some unseen monster had bitten into it. He stood there in shock, unable to comprehend what he saw. No mistake about it; the monster was biting off larger and larger portions of the sun. The world slowly turned dimmer, until it was dark as night. The sun was gone! Moon-gazer was terrified; this must be the end of the world. He tried to run, but it was too late. There was no escape. His knees buckled and he slumped to the ground.

He curled up on the ground, clutching the leather medicine pouch around his neck, waiting for Masau’u the God of Death to take him. After what seemed like a very long time, a glimmer of light returned. He looked up and saw that the sun was beginning to gain an upper hand, slowly escaping from the monster’s mouth. Eventually, it completely regained its usual size, seemingly unscathed. He sat up and looked around, everything looked the same as before. He knew Tawa the Sun God was powerful, but that was a close call! Worrying about what might have happened to his people, he jumped up and ran as fast as he could to his pueblo.

Moon-gazer found the pueblo in a great commotion, men talking excitedly with much gesticulation, women rushing back from the field to check on their families. To his relief, everyone was unharmed. Days later, elders from the surrounding communities held a meeting. All agreed that what happened was a bad omen. Some proposed to leave the area before it was too late. Others insisted to stay and ride out whatever to come. After much debate, it was decided that they would hold a ceremony to honor Tawa the Sun God and seek his protection.

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Moon House M1 Complex   

Photo  Tim Wong

On the day of summer solstice, Moon-gazer sat cross-legged with a dozen community leaders in a circle in the dark kiva. The priest wearing a turkey feather headdress laid a blanket in the middle of the circle and arranged corn ears all around the blanket. He then took pinches of corn meal from a clay bowl and sprinkled it carefully on the blanket, creating three zigzag lines of lightning bolts. When he was satisfied with the design, he sat back down and waited with the others in silence. Slowly, the room brightened. A shaft of light shot through the kiva entrance, lighting up a niche on the opposite wall. At that moment, the priest rose, shaking a gourd rattle, and started a low chant that resonated like a distant rumble. The others followed suit, rising one after another and started dancing in a counterclockwise circle.

Outside the kiva, a crowd waited, men and women in ceremonial regalia. When the sun rose higher, chanting from the kiva grew louder. At last, the priest emerged from the kiva, followed by the rest. As the dancers streamed past the waiting crowd, everyone fell in line from behind, men shaking gourd rattles and spruce sprigs, women swaying corn stalks, dancing in step. Their chanting echoed in the canyon. The column snaked along a narrow rock shelf past several storage granaries under an overhanging cliff and continued towards the residential section of the pueblo. Upon reaching there, the dancers turned around and circled back towards the kiva. They repeated this cycle four times before abruptly stopping in front of the residential section.

As the crowd watched, the priest climbed up a wooden ladder prepositioned against the protective outer wall of the living quarters. A helper held up a bowl of white clay paint and a yucca brush. The priest dipped the brush into the bowl and started painting a big white circle on the cliff above the wall. He made the circle wrap around the underside an overhang to depict the sun in the sky. Below the sun, he added a zigzag lightning pattern to invoke rain. The ceremony continued inside the living quarters of the pueblo. One by one, the leaders squeezed through the narrow entrance of the protective outer wall. Inside was a corridor that led to five inner rooms. They walked down the corridor and entered the middle room with a smoke-blacken roof and a hearth. As the group watched, the priest painted a wide white band around the three walls across from the entrance. Very carefully, he made two unpainted symbols along the band – a crescent on the west wall and a circle on the east wall. These were not just decorations, nor were they used as a calendar. They were a record of what happened when the sun turned dark, a monument commemorating the triumphant battle between Tawa and the monster.

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Negative pictographs on the west and east walls

May, 2005 AD.  Kuro-e slid through the narrow doorway of the outer wall of Moon House and landed on the rock shelf outside, still wondering about the meaning of the dark circle she saw in the inner room. Like many others, she assumed that dark circle represented a full moon; but why would they paint it dark? She walked along the rock bench to take a better look at the large ‘moon’ pictograph on the cliff above the pueblo. There were plenty of smooth flat rocks around that pictograph, why would they paint it on the uneven surface, making part of the ‘moon’ under those cracks? She remembered the Supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon, which was painted on the underside of an overhanging roof to symbolize the overhead sky. Perhaps, like the Supernova pictograph that recorded the explosion in 1054 AD, these ‘moon’ pictographs also recorded an important event, something more unique than waxing of the moon. No one knows for sure the meanings of those pictographs; only the walls bearing those images remember exactly what happened here more than seven hundred years ago.

On June 13, 1257 AD, a total solar eclipse was visible across a large swath of north America [ref]. On Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah, the event would have started just before noon around 11 a.m. and did not end until around 1:45 p.m.  Ancient Chinese called solar eclipse ‘the sun being eaten’ (日蝕 ). One can imagine the shock to the Anasazi, who structured their daily life around regular solar cycles, from telling time and seasons to planning crop-planting and ceremonies. The 1257 solar eclipse occurred shortly before a severe drought afflicted the Southwest. As if that was not enough warning, a second solar eclipse occurred again two years later in 1259 AD, in the early afternoon on October 17 [ref]  To the Anasazi, the startling erratic behavior of the sun, combined with the long drought, must have confirmed their fear of impending disasters. Tree-ring dating indicated that some parts of the Moon House complex were built as early as 964 AD, but all constructions were abruptly stopped after 1268 AD, nine years after the second solar eclipse, when the inhabitants abandoned the canyons.

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Moon House pictographs  Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano