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Collet Top Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Veil of Time
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

Kuro-e had been walking for over an hour under the scorching sun when something on the ground caught her eye. She wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand and picked it up. A flint with sharp edges. Translucent agate. She flipped it to the ground and walked on. Another one. Red and brown jasper. Left over from making stone tools long ago. She knew she was on the right track.

Earlier this morning, Kuro-e gassed up in the town of Escalante in Utah and drove towards Kaiparowits Plateau, a remote highland extending for over 50 miles from the town to almost the Arizona border. Over 1,600 square miles of wild woodland. No one lives there. The only access is a 75-mile-long winding 4-wheel-drive dirt road that cuts across the plateau. As the Jeep crawled up the rugged road to the 7,500-ft plateau, she worried about getting a flat tire. At the top, she turned into a rocky side road that ended on some bedrocks. She pulled over and started walking cross country, aiming towards a spot on her map that she had marked with an X.

Soon after leaving behind the stone cherts, a rocky outcrop came into view between stands of junipers. A mushroom-shaped boulder with a small arch perched on top. She circled around to the other side. Under the boulder was an alcove, its massive roof held up by a natural stone pillar. Inside the alcove was a perfectly preserved granary. The granary was built entirely of stone with no wooden parts. The head and the bottom sill were made of long stone blocks. She noticed the construction was unlike most other ruins in the Four Corners region. Most other ruins she had seen were built with stone blocks stacking on top of one another with the gaps sealed with clay. In this ruin, the stones appeared to be ‘wet-laid’ in the clay with the stones embedded in the mortar.

Collet Top Granary    Photo   Tim Wong

The ruin overlooked a wide mesa top dotted with pinyon and juniper amid a variety of shrubs. It must have been a good place for planting crops and hunting. Archaeologists found no evidence of indigenous development on Kaiparowits Plateau prior to 1,100 AD, the residents most likely migrated to here after that. Exactly where they came from is a mystery. Aside from the difference in building construction, ceremonial kivas so common in the Four Corners region to the east and southeast were completely absent on Kaiparowits Plateau. Pottery styles were also quite dissimilar. Some researchers suggested that the residents might have come from the west. In any case, they seemed to have abandoned the plateau around the same time as all others in the surrounding areas, eight centuries ago. Kuro-e looked out over the wide mesa under the blue sky and ever shifting clouds, feeling the utter silence and forlornness of the place.

Handprint on 'arrowhead'   Photo   Tim Wong

Behind the ruin, Kuro-e found a shallow cave, a welcome place to get out of the sun. She sat down inside to have a drink. Behind her, on the back wall were several old handprints. Red ochre. A particularly striking print was placed higher than the others, on a white stone in the shape of an arrowhead embedded in the sandstone wall. It was not a direct palm print. Whoever made it had dipped his or her fingers in ochre and smeared them on the rock, then finger-painted the heel of the palm. The handprint conferred a personal identity to the ruin, a symbol of authority. Instinctively, Kuro-e knew this was the leader and owner of the granary. She regarded it for a long time before raising her hand to greet the unseen person. In her mind’s eye, the handprint had transformed into a face, dark and sunburnt but not that different from hers, peering through layers of veil of time with a bemused look, as if asking how and why she ended up in that cave, so far away from home.

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