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Three Sisters Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

The Three Sisters
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

“Whoa, that looks impenetrable!” On a hike north of Sedona in Arizona, Kuro-e peered through her binoculars at the tall cliffs half a mile away. A band of dark-red rock several hundred feet high blocked her way. Behind that barrier, buttresses of golden Coconino formation soared another thousand feet towards the blue sky. Somewhere in there hid an ancient cliff dwelling. Kuro-e zoomed in on a narrow gap, the only way to get through the redrock band. The gap was guarded by three tall rock towers. She recognized those were the Three Sisters. She put away her binoculars and started climbing towards the towers, picking her way carefully past cacti and thorny bushes. Halfway up the slope, the cliff curled up like a breaking wave. She tried getting past the overhang by going to the right and hit a dead end. Turning around, she found a break on the left. The slope got much steeper, loose rocks tumbling down the slope with every step. The Three Sisters loomed over her like giant sentinels. She skirted around the left tower through a narrow gap overgrown with catclaw and crucifixion thorn. Huffing and puffing, she squeezed past the nasty tangles and found herself in a hidden hanging valley, cradled by red cliffs like cupped hands, dark desert varnish streaking down the sheer faces. She felt like stumbling into a secret Shangri-La. Under a large overhanging alcove lay an ancient ruin.

It was a long rectangular building with three adjoining rooms, each with a square doorway. Their roofs long gone, but the walls were in surprisingly good shape. One of the doors still had a wooden lintel. The alcove over the rooms was blackened by woodfire. Mineral-rich seeps smeared the black soot into fantastic patterns. Inside, Kuro-e found several good-size corncobs in the rubble, along with some stone flints. In a corner, she found three unusual objects with fan-out fibers and a sharp pointed tip. The fibers stained with different colored minerals. She learnt much later from a friend that those were yucca paint brushes, each made from a single yucca leaf.

Yucca paint brushes   Photo  Tim Wong


Morning Star pictograph   Tim Wong

The ruins overlooked a flat patch of land irrigated by rainwater funneling down the cliffs. She turned to study the plot and caught the tops of the Three Sisters peeking over the entrance gap. She recalled a legend of the Three Sisters – one tall and had flowing golden hair, another plump and short, and the third skinny and clingy - representing the staple crops of corn, squash, and bean. Indeed, this would have been a good place to plant crops. She walked to the back of the alcove and found the red wall scattered with pictographs, mostly white. Among the humanoids, snakes, and handprints, was a very distinctive pictograph of a white cross outlined in white. She had seen that at other sites. That was a symbol of Venus, the morning star, a virtual signature of the Sinagua culture.

From about 500 to 1,425AD, Sinagua Indians occupied a large territory covering the areas east of Flagstaff to the Verde Valley, including Sedona. They were ancestors of some Hopi clans. According to Hopi oral history, the Water Clan came from a place of red rocks in the south called Palatkwapi (1).  The exact location of Palatkwapi is under debate, but there are tantalizing clues that Sedona could be the Place of Red Rocks. Clearly, Hopis knew about the Sedona areas. In 1583, Spanish explorers heard about rich mineral deposits far to the west. They traveled from Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico to the Hopi Mesas. The friendly Hopis guided them on a centuries-old route to the mines in Jerome, west of Sedona. Jesse Walter Fewkes was the first archaeologist to document the Sinagua ruins around Sedona in 1895. Perhaps inspired by the Hopi legend of Palatkwapi, he named one of the major ruins Palatki, the Red House (2). 

The historic route taken by the Spanish explorers from Hopi to Jerome was the Palatkwapi Trail. It headed south from the Hopi Mesas to present day Winslow, then turned southwest down the Mogollon Rim to the Verde Valley, before turning west towards Sedona and Jerome. The trail passed through several major Sinagua settlements in the Verde Valley, one of the most interesting being the Montezuma Well.

On a windy day, Kuro-e pulled up in the parking lot of Montezuma Well Monument and walked up a paved path to the blustery rim of a large crater filled with blue-green water. Montezuma well is a large sinkhole fed by an underground spring. Spring water percolates from the sandy bottom, replenishing the well with 1.5 million gallons of fresh water every day. The water drains into Beaver Creek. From around 900-1,400AD, Sinagua Indians built cliff dwellings and granaries in every nook and cranny under the rim. A sizable pueblo was erected on the bluff overlooking the crater. They created miles of canals to irrigate acres of surrounding farmland. The area must have been an ideal place to settle. The numerous diverse petroglyphs at a site not far from Montezuma Well indicate the area was a hub for travelers. In fact, a piece of specially carved stone slab was intentionally placed in a crack at that petroglyph site, so that it would cast shadows that matched the ridgeline of the sacred San Francisco peaks as viewed from Wupatki, a Sinagua pueblo almost 100 miles to the north (3). 

By 1,425AD, Sinagua people abandoned the entire area and migrated to the Hopi Mesas. Herein lies perhaps the greatest puzzle. It is widely believed that prolonged droughts triggered the mass migration in the Southwest. If so, why would Sinagua people move from a location with seemingly unlimited supply of water to the arid Hopi Mesas? Kuro-e stood at the crater rim, admiring the ingenuity of the Sinagua while pondering that question. The answer may have long swept away with the wind.

  1. Harry C. James. 1988. Pages from Hopi History. P.22-25.

  2. Jesse Walter Fewkes. 1899. Archaeological Expedition to Arizona in 1895. P.553-557.

  3. Kennith J. Zoll. 2008. Sinagua Sunwatchers: An Archaeological Survey of the V Bar V Heritage Site and the Sacred Mountain Basin.


Montezuma Well Ruins   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

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