Moon pictographs   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

House of the Quarter Moons
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

One night in the 12th century, the old shaman was busy working inside a small stone-and-mortar enclosure while the rest of his clan were sound asleep in their pueblo under a deep alcove. A half-moon just rose over the canyon rim, flooding the land with a ghostly pale glow. The shaman had been keeping count, the last full moon was seven nights ago; tonight’s half-moon would be a last-quarter moon, the fifth since winter solstice. A shaft of moonbeam shot through an opening on the wall, illuminating a zigzag line on the backwall. Painted with red ochre, the line appeared dark as dried blood in the moonlight. To the left of the zigzag line were a row of pictographs: a round circle followed by a series of half-circles. The shaman raised his hand to count the half-circles from left to right, “One, two, three, four...” His hand paused briefly over the fourth one painted higher than the rest, then swung over to the fifth half-circle under the zigzag line. “Five,” he whispered. As if to confirm the count, he shuffled two steps to the right to trace the up and down movement of the zigzag line, from left to right. His hand stopped at the fifth upstroke, directly above the fifth half-circle. “Five,” he nodded in affirmation. The fifth last-quarter moon, exactly 118 days since the first last-quarter moon of the year. He knew the ground had warmed enough, and the nights would be frost-free until autumn. Tomorrow, he would instruct his clan to start planting corn seeds.


Over-Under Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

April 23, 2022.  It rained last night. Pockets of water lingered on the slickrock. Kuro-e crouched at the edge of the canyon rim, peering through binoculars into the shadows below. Two alcoves, stacked like crescent moons one over the other, both contained Anasazi structures. She stuffed the binoculars into her backpack and started looking for a way to climb down. After several steep slickrock pitches and crossing a small stream, she reached the ruin. The upper alcove was inaccessible. She entered the lower alcove, greeted by a well-preserved two-story square building reaching the full height of the cave. A pair of stout wooden beams protruded through the mortared stone wall, supporting rows of smaller cross beams that form the floor of the second level. She peered inside through the rectangular doorway and found a tangle of twigs and leaves in a corner; some animals have made it their home. The smaller second level was accessed through a separate opening higher up the front wall. The arching alcove served as its ceiling. Near the center of the cave were remnants of other structures, some showing fire damages. Pottery shards and a few dried-up corncobs scattered in the dirt. Nearby lay a long boulder with rows of smooth grinding basins, a workstation for grinding corns.

​A curious small room near the far end of the alcove caught Kuro-e’s eyes. She walked over to take a closer look. The room was too narrow for habitation. On the rock behind the partially collapsed wall was a stunning blood-red zigzag pictograph. Over five-foot long, the line had eleven up and down strokes. To the left of the zigzag line were a series of pictographs, a full-circle followed by five half-circles. To Kuro-e's eyes, they evoked phases of the moon. She noticed that the fifth half-circle was the only pictograph painted under the zigzag line, directly below the fifth inflection of the line. Was that just a coincidence? Somehow, she sensed that this half-circle held special significance.


Water channel leading into pictograph room   Photo   Tim Wong

While examining the pictographs, Kuro-e accidentally stepped into a muddy puddle hidden behind the wall. She was surprised to find water there. The backwall of the room was bone dry, where did the water come from? Looking outside, she found a shallow ditch leading all the way from the far edge of the alcove to that room. The soil in the ditch was still moist; she might not have noticed it had it not rained the night before. Looking more carefully, she realized that the wall of the small room was built with a portal at ground level to channel water from the ditch inside.

​Suddenly, it all became clear. She understood the purpose of that room and the meaning of the pictographs within. That small enclosure served an important function for collecting and storing water. It also housed a lunar calendar, possibly for crops planting. Anasazi corn (maize) needed a 100-day freeze-free growing season. The arid climate and short growing season in the desert Southwest made it critical to plant at the right time. In the lower corner of the room were three pictographs, a full circle followed by two half-circles, possibly representing last-quarter moons in the 29.5-day lunar cycle. The significance of the fifth half-circle became clear. Depending on the year, the fifth last-quarter moon after winter solstice would fall between late April and May, precisely the optimal time for planting corn in this area.

​Kuro-e stared at the pictographs on the wall with awe and respect. The shaman had reached out over unbridgeable span of time to speak to her through the lines and symbols on the wall. She wanted to ask many more questions. Why did his people choose this canyon? What happened here? Why did they leave and where did they go? Suddenly, a loud caw startled Kuro-e; she looked up and saw the silhouette of a raven perched at the canyon rim against the low sun, reminding her she had a long climb back to the rim. Reluctantly, she turned her back to the pictograph room and let her questions remain unspoken.