Jailhouse Ruin   Pastel on paper  by Akiko Hirano

Enigma

Tim Wong & Akiko Hirano

13th Century.  Much of the world was in a grip of terror. Genghis Khan 汗 invaded China to become the first emperor of the oppressive Yuan Dynasty. Mongol army marauded Middle East and Europe, invaded Poland, Hungary, and Germany, sowing atrocities along the way. Half a century later, his grandson Kublai Khan set sight on Japan. In 1281, a fleet of over 4,000 ships carrying 140,000 troops converged on Kyushu. Armed with newly invented canons and iron bombs, it was going to be a bloodbath and certain victory for the invaders. Unbeknown to the commanders, a powerful typhoon was on its way. It struck the fleet at anchor off Japan, devastated much of the flotilla, saving Japan and halted further expansion of Khan’s empire. The Japanese called it kamikaze - divine wind.

Half-way around the globe, the Anasazi world was gripped by a different terror. Years of drought and social collapse led to widespread violence. People moved their homes from mesa-tops to ledges on high cliffs. Eagle Eye's clan had fortified their pueblo. They blocked windows with stout wooden bars; they built a defensive wall over their living quarters. To warn potential invaders, they painted three intimidating white shields representing the resident families over the dwellings; in the middle, Eagle Eye painted his personal shield, sporting a pair of dark eyes staring down on anyone approaching the pueblo. Even with all the preparations, he was worried; survivors from the east told of entire villages being slaughtered, some victims butchered and eaten by the invaders. It was a very dark time.

Jailhouse Ruin   Photo by Tim Wong

Fall, 2019 AD. Southern Utah.  The days were getting shorter. Kuro-e set up camp at a bend in the canyon. In the distance, she saw an imposing rock buttress with curious white marks. After a quick meal, she grabbed her headlamp and down jacket, and headed towards the buttress. She now saw that the white marks were three round shields painted on the rockface above a two-story Anasazi ruin. She had an uneasy feeling, somehow the shields looked to her like a warning rather than decorations.


The lower level of the ruin was a cave containing several inner rooms. While the outer walls were solidly constructed with stone and mortar, the inner rooms were built with less durable sticks and daub, only portions of which remained. One outer room had a window with unusual wooden barriers. Kuro-e recognized this was the so-called ‘jailhouse’ ruin. Towards the back of the cave, the ceiling was blackened by smoke. A white rectangular meander geometric design decorated the back wall, below which were a group of white handprints of the former occupants. 

After exploring the lower level of the ruin, Kuro-e looked for an access to the upper level. There was no obvious opening connecting the two levels. After some search, she discovered a devious and perilous route to reach the upper level. She found no living quarters there, only a long corridor protected by a thick robust stone-and-mortar defensive wall. Notches and loopholes built into that wall would allow defenders to crouch behind to shoot arrows down at invaders. This was not a balcony for enjoying the view; this was a fortress. Backed against the cliff, it had no escape route. This was their Alamo, a last stand to fight to the death.


Except for pieces of chert flakes on the ground, the corridor was empty. Kuro-e picked up a piece and felt it with her thumb. It was sharp enough to draw blood, remnant from making arrowheads. Kuro-e was lost in a deep thought; she had difficulty reconciling the seemingly idyllic setting with the near-paranoid defensive measures. Anasazi moved en masse from mesa-tops to defensive strongholds in the 12th and 13th centuries. These people were terrified of something; what were they afraid of? 

Archeologists found evidence of wide-spread violence during that period. In a kiva near Sleeping Ute Mountain east of this ruin, archeologists collected human coprolites containing human myoglobin, a skeletal muscle protein not found in the intestine - indisputable evidence of cannibalism. It seemed too shocking to believe. On the other hand, Kuro-e knew that at the time when these people were facing unspeakable atrocity, large swaths of Asia and Europe were engulfed in horrific violence. Civilization did not seem to improve human behaviors. Indeed, some of the most heinous atrocities were committed by the most technologically advanced nations; the Second World War made that abundantly clear. Perhaps, whatever horror that happened here in these canyons in the 12th and 13th centuries might not be an aberration. These people were just like the rest of us.

As the sun sank low above the mesa, casting long shadows over the beautiful canyon, Kuro-e was unsure whether she felt relieved or depressed. She flipped the stone flake to the ground, zipped up her jacket, and started to find her way back to camp.

Canyon Twilight   Photo by Tim Wong