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Green Mask Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

Interesting!” Kuro-e thought to herself, staring at the unusual pictographs. On the rock panel under a wide alcove stood a pair of humanoid figures with broad trapezoid bodies and stick-like limbs. Rendered with yellow clay over the red rock, the ghostly images stared back at Kuro-e through great expanse of time. These appeared to be females, their nipples emphasized with red ocher. Below the figures were handprints, same red color. Could those be the hands of the people who created these pictographs? The figures had no faces. They both wore their hair in side-bobs, topped with a distinctive crescent-shaped headgear. Kuro-e recognized that shape. A piece of carved wooden ornament of a similar shape was collected in the vicinity by archaeologists Charles McCloyd and Charles Graham over a century ago. A petroglyph at a site east of here called the Wolfman panel depicted a similar crescent-shaped ornament atop a staff, possibly symbolizing high social standing and power. Kuro-e knew, she was standing right on top of one of the most intriguing archaeological finds in the Southwest.


Pictographs & Handprints  Photo  Tim Wong


Circles in Kiva   Photo  Tim Wong

At this very spot some fifteen hundred years ago, a Basketmaker clan gathered around the body of a woman curled up on a blanket, while the priest lovingly combed her hair, then put red ocher on her face and yellow ocher all over her body. They wrapped her in the blanket and placed her in a pit under the red cliff. They covered her with a turkey-feather blanket decorated with yellow canary feathers, followed by another blanket with bluebird feathers. Over the blankets, they placed two finely-weaved oval baskets. On the red rock right above the grave, the priest painted two figures with yellow ocher. They built a fire and held a solemn all-night ceremony. At the first light, the priest dipped his hands in the red ocher paste and pressed his palms between the figures. The rest of the clan followed suit, putting their own prints under the priest’s. There the woman lay for over a millennium, until cowboy-turned-amateur archeologist Richard Wetherill dug her up in 1897 and proceeded to ship her to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Wetherill was so impressed by the unusually elaborate burial that he named her the Princess. He did not know Anasazi were matrilineal, and the woman was no mere princess, she was the matriarch of her clan.

Against the cliff to the left of the pictographs, Kuro-e saw remnants of two semicircular kivas, likely built much later during the Pueblo II or III periods, indicating this alcove had been used successively by different groups over many centuries. The backwall of one kiva was painted black with charcoal; and on that black band were four circles, painted with red ocher in a horizontal row. The left pair were plain, while the right pair were opposing spirals. High above the ground at the far end of the alcove was a small cave. A stone wall was built to turn the cave into a small room. Through an opening, Kuro-e could see pictographs of trapezoid humanoids, painted dark red on the backwall. Other than that room and the two kivas, no other dwelling was visible; yet the alcove was covered with numerous pictographs and handprints, suggesting this was a ceremonial site rather than a residence. Kuro-e looked at the two figures standing guard over where Princess used to be, nothing left but a hole on the ground. She picked up a pinch of red clay and sprinkled the powder into the hole. “Rest in peace, Princess, wherever you are.”


Yellow House Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Farther up the canyon, Kuro-e came upon a beautiful ruin, built under a bright yellow cliff that stood out conspicuously among the red rocks. Kuro-e scrambled up to the ruin and found the entire ground covered with powdery yellow clay. The ruin itself consisted of several stone dwellings, mortared with the same beautiful clay which still bore the finger marks of the builders. The structures were exceptionally well-preserved, the roofs were in perfect condition that showed excellent workmanship. Wooden roof beams were meticulously tied together with grass twines, all the knots still intact. The dwellings opened to a broad slickrock terrace like a patio. Walking across the patio, Kuro-e left clear footprints on the yellow powder. She sat down to rest on the terrace overlooking the lush canyon. She wondered if the yellow paint on Princess's body might have come from here.

Ocher is a mixture of clay and iron oxide. Red ocher comes from hematite, or ferric oxide. When combined with hydrogen and oxygen, it becomes limonite, yellow ocher. Ocher has been widely used in prehistoric death rituals around the world; red ocher may symbolize blood, life and rebirth. Many cultures believe in spiritual guardians who help the dying on their next journeys. Perhaps the pictograph figures over Princess's grave represented spiritual beings to guide and protect her on her journey. Though that was just a fancy, the thought made Kuro-e happy.

The sun was hanging low over the canyon rim, casting a warm glow that turned the yellow cliff golden. Kuro-e took one last look at the Yellow House as she prepared to leave. Only then she noticed that her pants were coated with the yellow powder.  She wetted two fingers on her tongue to pick up the powder, and swiped it across her cheekbones.

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