The Sacred Environment of Arroyo Hondo

The Sacred Environment of Arroyo Hondo

Richard I. Ford and Jason Shapiro



            Arroyo Hondo is one of the most extensively reported sites in the Southwest. There are nine monographs and 36 special reports prepared by highly skilled professional archaeologists and other specialists. Doug Schwartz, who directed the Arroyo Hondo excavation, returned to his analyses on a regular basis in order to see if he could tease more details out of the site that would change his original conclusions, as well as to see if the extensive knowledge of the site, could be used to address issues that arose after the 1970-1975 excavations. For example, the impact of climate change on the Pueblo’s two successive occupations was a question that occupied Doug’s thinking. Another issue has been the relationship of Arroyo Hondo with other earlier and contemporaneous sites (e.g. Post in Schwartz 2016).  These relations included the questions of warfare (LeBlanc 2015) and exchange, near and far, (Crown 2015). These issues led Doug to request some of the leading thinkers in the Southwest to reconsider Arroyo Hondo in light of these and other contemporary issues and to prepare new essays to update Arroyo Hondo.  These have been assembled in a new internet eBook that is available on line, including the reproduction of the earlier monographs and reports, free of charge (Schwartz 2016).

            In the past several years Doug became aware of shrines in the vicinity of Arroyo Hondo. He was familiar with, a now destroyed, World Quarter Shrine at the south end of the site, but he was not familiar with a series of “slicks” at the north end of the site or several cupule boulders in the same area that have also been destroyed by a new driveway. Doug wanted to know more about these sacred features and it is the purpose of this paper to provide answers to his questions about those and other sacred features related to Arroyo Hondo.



The Tewa Mental Template of Cultural Space

            Doug recognized Arroyo Hondo as a Southern Tewa site based on ceramics, architectural features, and previous interpretations. Doug correctly relied upon Ortiz (1969) to understand the site. Ethnographic analogy was appropriate to interpreting the site but there are more Tewa scholars, including Naranjo and Swentzell 1989; Swentzell 1985, 1990 who have published meaningful information about the Tewa use of space that expands the descriptions provided by Ortiz.


Conceptions of the Universe

            All Tewa conceive of a world of many spirits and forces that benefit people. Tewa origin myths that tell where the spirits came from, their association with the first people, and how they affect human lives. Some spirits live in heaven and are related to natural phenomena “above”, a basic sacred direction in rituals, prayers, and songs. These spirits are commonly associated with water – rain, snow, hail, fog, wind, lightening, and thunder. Five other directions complete the parameters of the university. These are four cardinal directions with a mountain designating it and the middle place where a pueblo sits (0rtiz 1969; Swentzell 1990). When the first human beings lived underground, “below,” there were other spirits with them.  Tewa believe their ancestors emerged from a portal or lake in the San Luis valley, or Sandy Place Lake to be specific.

            The model of the universe is a mental template that all Tewa ceremonial leaders carry in their heads and that can be reproduced at any new place where they move. Ortiz (1969: 22) described the Tewa universe as a series of nested squares or a tetramerous structure. The outer most have the sacred mountains associated with rain making. The next interior square is the four flattop sacred hills. They are marked by a circles of rocks with a cave nearby, and are the home of four pairs of Towa’e, who protect a Tewa pueblo. The shrines, boundary markers and centers, then, serve as constant reminders of the religious, symbolic nature of life.

          Rina Swentzell, was a Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo (Swentzell 1990) conceived the Tewa universe as circular in the form of a pot capped by a basket. All the spaces recognized by Ortiz (1969) fill the space inside the pot.

Figure 1.  Swentzell, 1990, A Tewa Model of the earth

          Because this realm of existence and other realms exist simultaneously, there is a continuous flow of spiritual energy between all levels of existence. Because the nansipu (center) is the symbolic point from which the people emerged, the shrines (such as the mountain called Tsikomo) are points where the possibility for contact with different levels of existence can happen, particularly where the earth and sky meet. Thus, the cosmos becomes a continuous flowing whole from the sacred mountain tops to the shrine in the middle of the plaza or the sipapu in a kiva, if it is there.

          The World is an energy field controlled by spirits. Directional forces of the world are cyclical as mentally constructed by Tewa and move in and out of the earth rather than exclusively upward towards the heavens. This energy field to animate objects, as for example, clay (dirt) is talked to because it is of the earth and shares in the flow of life. That flow described as “Po-wah-ha” (water-wind-breath), is not only the essence of life but is one of the Tewa’s most basic concepts.

Figure 2 . Swentzel 1985: 2; World Energy Field, Swentzell 1990

Site Directional Shrines: Man-made Inner Ring of Shrines

          Tewa sites have four, cupule covered shrines that are at each of the cardinal direction (Figure 3) up to two miles from the pueblo. Their location also distinguishes a binary opposition that separates female space and activities from the male area. Beyond these shrines is where men gather ritual plants, hunt, conduct rabbit hunts, leave the village to trade, but it is also where evil lurks in the form of bad omens and enemy warriors. Inside these shrines the women and children gather plants for food and medicine and spend time visiting with other women doing the same thing. These shrines do not exist at Arroyo Hondo today. If it did in the past, considering all the surface modifications in the Arroyo Hondo ranch area, they could easily have been destroyed.


Figure 3. Basalt North Directional Shrine (left) with cupules at San Ildefonso (close-up right).   It is located about two miles from the pueblo.

          The next ring of shrines inside the directional shrines is three trash middens. Here debris from cleaning the plaza and houses are deposited. The dead were also once buried in this fill. On top are exotic stones forming shrines where “Ash Boy” is worshipped. Arroyo Hondo has remnants of four eroded trash piles. Two are located to the west of room blocks 13 and 18. One to the east of room block 24. The fourth is adjacent to room block 11. However, there do not appear to be shrine like features associated with them.

          Finally, there are the plazas. In smaller pueblos or those with house block divisions, like Arroyo Hondo, there is a shrine in the plaza of the house block. In larger pueblos, there may be four plazas each inside the larger house blocks. The “heart of the earth” or “bu-ping-geh” (heart of the Pueblo) for the Tewa people is the plaza or open community space within the village where ritual dances and other community activities happen. The “bu-ping-geh” contains the literal center of the earth or the “nansipu,” which translates as the “belly-root of the earth” or “earth navel.” It is marked by a pile of stones or one or more cupuled stones. Each Pueblo’s cosmos encircles the “nansipu” and the surrounding mountains, where the sky and earth touch, are the boundaries of the well-organized spaces in the Tewa universe for people, animals, and spirits to live. 

Figure 4. Sacred Configuration of Plaza.

(Swentzell 1990)

Shrines:  Mountains and Hills

          Within Tewa cosmology the four sacred mountains and four hills is associated with an important deity. Each mountain also possesses certain qualities that distinguish each one from the others. These characteristics include: their height, the presence of a lake below their summit, a stream flowing from the lake to the pueblo, physical characteristics, e.g., obsidian, rhyolite, signs of lightening fires. Each Tewa Pueblo has its own series of sacred mountains, although there is overlap and shared shrines one of which is constructed on summit of each mountain. As an illustration of differences Ohkay Owingeh has its eastern shrine on Truchas North but Tesuque uses Lake Peak. For the north most Tewa pueblos use San Antonio Peak (“Keh pin” or Bear Mountain) whereas Ohkay Owingeh uses Canjilon. All use Tsikomo (“Yellow Cloud Man”) for their western peak. This may relate to its visibility for all Tewa Pueblos and it appears that most rainstorms seem to emanate from that mountain. Furthermore, both height and visibility may account for Sandia Peak being the unanimous Tewa sacred mountain of the south.

          For Arroyo Hondo we might speculate that as a Tewa pueblo it had four sacred mountains. The one for the east was probably Lake Peak, which was the highest near the pueblo. A second possibly is Thompson Peak, which is not only accessible. It is also from where the Arroyo Hondo flows. A good survey is needed to look for a lake (that is a metaphoric word for a spring as well), a shrine near the summit, or other unique qualities associated with Thompson Peak.

          There are several possibilities for Arroyo Hondo’s sacred mountain of the north. I would consider San Antonio Mountain as a good guess for its height and evidence of rainfall. For the West Tsikomo stands out. It looms over Arroyo Hondo on the Jemez horizon without a rival for visibility and snow in the winter. For the South Sandia Peak lacks a rival for its distinctiveness.

Figure 5. Model of Tsikomo, Sacred Mountain of West. Note Trails Leading to Different Pueblos

          Unlike the mountains, the four sacred hills are different for each Tewa Pueblo. Although they do share certain characteristics. For Example there isalways a portal – a cave, vent, or an erosional shelter. All Tewa believe that a pair of Towa’e guardians live on these hills, and shrines consisting of rock circles are usually found on top of each of the sacred hills.

          An obvious example of portals is Black Mesa at San Ildefonso. It has several volcanic vents that the Tewa claim are the home of the “Tsave Yoh,” or masked punitive whippers.

          Given the variability of the local landscape it is difficult to always identify these sacred hills. For Arroyo Hondo there is a possibility of one on the southern flanks of Atalaya Mountain off the Dorothy Stewart Trail. It has a well-built stone circle typical of Tewa shrines. There are other obviously sacred hills that are part of the Tewa mental geographic template but were not discussed by Ortiz. These are hills, usually adjacent to the pueblo, with a sizable stone circle at the summit. Te’ewi and Poshu on the Chama and San Cristobal in the Galisteo have such circles. A high place associated with a pueblo must have conveyed some type of ritual advantage but was not a prerequisite for situating a pueblo. Heaven was now closer!

Figure 6. Hill Shrine on Dorothy Stewart Trail

Water:  Stream Life Lines and Springs

          All Eastern Tewa situate their pueblo with a stream that flows from a mountain to bring blessings to the village. Some of the perennial streams are shared by more than one pueblo, e.g., Pojoaque and Nambe share the Rio Nambe. In another case, two river “life lines” flow from the same mountain. Tsikomo is the source of the Rio Santa Clara (on the south) and the Rio del Oso (on the north), which is sacred for Ohkay Owingeh. The Rio Tesuque is important to Tesuque but it joins the Rio Nambe to form the Rio Pojoaque, so critical to San Ildefonso. Following this logic, the Arroyo Hondo appears to have been critical to that pueblo. It begins on Thompson Peak but that peak has not been surveyed in order to see if there is either a shrine or a rock berm to spring water for a lake. Even when the surface flow was limited or non-existent, the arroyo flowed underground and sub-irrigated the roots of the crops planted along it, particularly as the arroyo flows past the pueblo to the west and south.

          Springs are very important to the Tewa, and sites were located near permanently flowing and reliable springs. For the Tewa springs were associated with women and the Women’s sodality. The women cleaned the springs and had specific rituals they performed at the spring (s). The spring located below and on the east side of Arroyo Hondo possesses the basic attributes of security and reliability, but we have no knowledge of its association with a Women’s sodality. It appears important to the extent that the only petroglyph found at Arroyo Hondo is located by the spring.

Figure 7.  “Petroglyph?” on Exotic Stone by Arroyo Hondo Spring

          These bodies of water have another ritual association.  The Tewa believe that all rivers, arroyos, springs and lakes are linked underground and that the sacred water serpents (Awenyus) can swim some distance into any of them. Prayers are offered to the Awenyu in kiva ceremonies and at petroglyph sites with their image. They carry prayers to other spirits associated with water.

Figure 8. Awenyu. They can swim underwater through all rivers, arroyos, lakes, and springs.

           This 9’ long petroglyph marks the birthplace of the Awenyu in the Rio Grande (Harrington 1916:44). It is located on the first high terrace overlooking the river at Claro.

Figure 9.  Pagosa Spring (Wheeler Expedition 1874). Tewa Sacred Spring

          The Tewa believe that a series of hot springs can commemorate their emergence from their primordial underwater home of “Sipofene,” which is located under a lake in the North called Sandy Place Lake in the San Luis valley. The Tewa lived there with White Corn Maiden and Blue Corn Woman. Holy water and sacred mud can be obtained from a hot spring in the San Luis valley (the precise location of Sandy Place Lake is unknown). Alternatively, Tewa can go to Pagosa Spring for the same substances, which they once did on pilgrimages to ancestral sites and shrines. Tewa ceremonialists still go to the Posi hot springs in Ojo Caliente for these ritual materials. All of these hot springs serve the same ceremonial purposes and all are linked by the swimming Awenyus.
World Quarter Shrine

          Most large Tewa sites have these special, well-constructed, large circular shrines, dating to the fourteenth century. They are found at the south end of site and are some distance from the pueblo, often as much as a quarter of a mile, as if the intent was to keep the ceremonies secret. These shrines appear as roofless kivas. They have a coursed stonewall over a meter in height that forms the outer boundary of the circular shrine. It is not a complete circle because it is left open by a meter or so facing the east. Inside this wall is a second circle of upright slabs, also sharing the same opening to the east.  The interior is excavated down a meter or more, and in the center is a sipapu containing sacred objects such as turquoise beads or carved fetishes. These caches are called the “heart” and are often looted leaving an empty hole in the middle of the shrine.

          Little is known ethnographically about these shrines or their function. Based on the architecture and their orientation, they appear to be for agricultural rituals for rain and to help plant growth. If true, then they were probably controlled or maintained under the Summer Moiety head. There was such a shrine on a hill at the south end of Arroyo Hondo. In the past decade the property was sold and a driveway was constructed with a bulldozer and the shrine was removed. Prior to this and consistent with a Santa Fe County ordinance, it was surveyed, excavated, and described (Boggess 2014). Its location and construction are typical of other Tewa World Quarter Shrines. Summer moiety members were the probable audience and ceremonial actors.

Figure 10.  Arroyo Hondo World Quarter Shrine (LA 10608)

Grinding Slicks

          Grinding slicks are found on andesite bedrock slabs a were used to sharpen ground stone tools, especially axes that were used to clear trees from potential farming area when the area was first settled. Kurt Anschuetz first recognized them during his Rio del Oso survey. It was clear to him that they were very functional for agriculture and had nothing to do with corn grinding as some had speculated. The tools at this time were grooved granitic stone axes, that were found occasionally in the field areas. However, after the trees were cleared, these slicks would not be needed. Yet they continued to be made, albeit in the vicinity of residential sites. Also, the axes changed in terms of the preferred stone, namely fibrolite, which is a valued exotic stone found as rare Rio Grande river cobbles or quarried from the Taos area. Two fibrolite axes were excavated by Nelson in Arroyo Hondo along with other axes. We don’t know if they were agricultural or ceremonial. The ceremonial importance of fibrolite axes is preserved today in Tewa family charm baskets where they are “fed” with cornmeal. The slicks found on the sites reported by Post (Post 2016) appear also to have been related to a now extinct agricultural ritual for successful crops.

          At the north end of Arroyo Hondo are numerous polished slicks formed in the bed rock or on slabs that have spalled off. These are on a north-south diagonal with the World Quarter shrine but we do not know if they are related or if this association is fortuitous, because that is where the stone was found. In any event these slicks appear to have delineated another sacred area on Arroyo Hondo.

Figure 11 .   Slick at North end of Arroyo Hondo. The andesite surface is highly polished.

Missing Cupule Boulders

          Cupules are the oldest form of ritual stone modifications in the New World. They were probably part of the ritual activities brought by Paleoindians from Siberia where they are common. Cupules are openings in the surface of a boulder made by pounding or by circular grinding. They represent part of an animistic belief system that accompanies shamanism. There is the belief that the boulder is home to one or more beneficial spirits.  By making the hole you are opening a portal to communicate with spirits. This process implies that there is power in the rock imbued by the spirit. By grinding or pounding the rock you crush the surface and create a medicine, commonly called “rock flour.” It can be rubbed on the body or drunk in water as a cure. Most Tewa sites have several cupule boulders on them and until recently Arroyo Hondo did as well. However, until several years ago they were at the west or north end of the site but they appear to have been removed or destroyed when a new driveway was built at that end of the site. Cupules are often associated with Tewa sodalities and are found on the site or nearby, but none is present at Arroyo Hondo and Dickson did not find any in his survey (Dickson 1979).

Figure 12.  Cupule Opening made with a circular grinding motion. Located on Mesa Prieta.

          If the cupule boulders at Arroyo Hondo had been recorded or were still there, they would form a ritual pair that are found on other Tewa sites. The World Quarter shrines are found at the southern end of many large Tewa sites, with an opening to the east, and often with accompanying petroglyphs symbolizing water. Opposite it on the north end of the site are two boulders with numerous cupules that represent the Twin War Gods. Seasonally, they signify winter and activities at that time of year like warfare. This pair of directional shrines (South-North) incorporates several of the key oppositions that are part of Tewa cosmological thought.

Other Shrines

          There are many miscellaneous rocks scattered about the surface of Arroyo Hondo.  Some of these may have been shrines but one stands out for further consideration because It is typical of many Tewa shrines.  It is a large light colored boulder that had to have been moved onto the site because it is not natural in the Santa Fe formation gravel that covers the site. There are several other rocks with this boulder and such a configuration is not unusual. However, if this is a shrine, its meaning is unknown by analogy.

          Two specific features were discovered and analyzed from Plaza G by Beal (1972).  One feature was a pile of “utilized and non-utilized lithic debris” associated with a circular pit .55 meters in diameter and .17 meters in depth in which the substrate was sterile subsoil.” The walls of the pit were not blackened as would be expected in a hearth or cooking pit, although there were some burned lithics, ostensibly deposited on the surface subsequent to the pit construction. The second potential shrine also consisted of a roughly rectangular lithic deposit (about .80 meters on each side) in which some of which were burned/blackened. Of the 100 stones (more or less) in this deposit, approximately 20% of them showed modification or use (hammer stones, fragmentary manos). The suggestion of a shrine was based primarily on the existence of “a large rectangular slab (.5 meter long, .43 meter wide, .08-.10 meter thick) embedded .12 meter into the plaza surface and forming the western perimeter of the feature. These may not be shrines but “blessing” features when the plaza was consecrated.

Figure 13  . Large Boulder and Related Stones. Possible Shrine on Arroyo Hondo

          The Tewa have other shrines in the form of cupuled boulders or exotic rocks often found on sites but these are missing from Arroyo Hondo. An earth navel, is usually located in the oldest plaza. Plaza C is the oldest plaza at Arroyo Hondo but little is known about it because it was not extensively excavated. There is no shrine there. Other shrines, usually cupuled boulders for different sodalities should be located in the room blocks or in close proximity to the residential area. Several examples include a Women’s shrine for that sodality to use for rituals and for any woman to use to pray for successful pregnancies or for close relatives to get well.  Another is often a circle of stones that form the Hunt shrine where animal bones are deposited by all successful hunters.  Two other shrines, curing shrines and “Coming of Age” Shrines, are defined by special petroglyphs and are located outside the village. The medicine sodality uses curing shrines with enlarged volcanic fissure portals that open deep into the boulder or petroglyphs depicting large hands. The “Coming of Age shrines are large circles of stone where a boy and his elder relative can sleep, watch the rising sun, look at petroglyphs, and hear the elder’s story about primal beings, e.g. humans with tails or webbed digits.  Arroyo Hondo is missing recognizable shrines that allow sodality members and tribespersons to communicate with the spirits to improve their lives.

          Tewa pueblos and their ancestral homes have numerous shrines similar to those just mentioned between the directional shrines and the “nansipu” in the center of the village. Many of them have been described and illustrated by Douglas (1917), Harrington (1916), Ortman (2012), Parsons (1929), and Swentzell (1990).

Interior Ritual Architecture

          Pueblo inhabitants built covered ritual structures that took the place of natural features on the landscape. The most obvious are kivas and communal ritual areas; Arroyo Hondo has both.


          Kivas are obvious built sacred spaces.  Their interior features suggest ritual activities that Tewa ethnography suggests males were conducted by males or with the assistance of female ritual assistants.  Arroyo Hondo Component I has 5 kivas built at different times in its complex history. Only one kiva was found in Component II, which may suggest that a different ritual system was adopted by the residents when they lived elsewhere before returning, assuming descendants of the original migrants returned.

          Grinding Rooms

           Fowles (2013:174-177) has made the argument that grinding rooms are a female opposition of sacred female space to the male kiva association. They are located in the plaza and sometimes have a lowered floor. These spaces are mainly used to process maize. At Arroyo Hondo there is evidence for mealing bins in both room blocks and plazas. We are concerned with those in the plaza in relation to the kivas. With regard to room blocks, there were no mealing bins found in any Component I room but four mealing bins were found in Component II rooms (see Creamer figure 3.12 page 54. Although Shapiro had not considered these features in his dissertation research, this finding is consistent with his conclusion that domestic life became more “privatized” during Component II relative to Component I, and that individual families were more “responsible for their own well-being” (Shapiro p. 125). On the other hand, seven mealing areas were discovered in Component II’s plaza C, a number similar to what was found in Component I plaza excavations. In Component II they may be more utilitarian than sacred spaces.

          Insofar as plazas are concerned, at least six mealing areas were found in plaza G and two in plaza K. The details are summarized in Creamer, Tables 4.5 (p. 64-68) and 4.7 (p. 71). All of the mealing areas were located immediately adjacent to room blocks, not kivas.  Creamer states at page 85 “the occurrence of mealing bins for two metates suggests that grinding may have been a cooperative activity.” She also considers differences between slab-lined bins (fine grinding) and the clay-rimmed bin (coarse grinding or nut (pinyon or acorn) shelling).

          We can only speculate about how these grinding areas functioned for kin relations grinding corn together for domestic consumption or as a form of multi-household female ritual of thanksgiving, or for sodality women doing ritual corn grinding or medicine plant grinding for the sodality’s male member’s ceremonies. In any case, there was a complex social dimension to the use of these specialized spaces by commoner women and ritual specialists. The same applies to what they were grinding. Corn is the obvious substance but ritual plant grinding was needed for sodality ceremonies to cure members of the pueblo and to purify the pueblo of evil spirits.

          Communal rooms

          There is a structure (Kiva J) on the south side of Arroyo Hondo, Component I, that falls under a designation as a “Great Kiva,” (86.8 m2) but it lacks the interior features of a kiva. It appears large enough to accommodate a large portion but not the entire population. The social organization of Arroyo Hondo is unknown but, If the Tewa analogy is correct, this anomalous structure may have served a moiety organization and the structure was used alternately by the moieties, one in winter and the other in summer. This means this structure was ceremonial in purpose but the Summer and Winter sodalities may have met here alternatively during the appropriate season. Theoretically there should be two rooms, one for each moiety, attached to this structure or built nearby, but no such structures were noted by either Nelson (1914) or Creamer (1993).

          We are including ceremonial rooms with sacred spaces because they appear to have kiva features. Creamer (1993) reported that Component I had six ceremonial rooms defined by the presence of kiva features and their larger size. Component II had none.  Room 11-5 (Component I) had some interior features and configurations that indicated that it may have functioned as a kin- kiva or sodality house. The point is that there was no kiva found in Component I, plaza C, and this interior room (which is slightly larger than average for roomblock 11) may have served that function. The other five rooms contained kiva-like architectural features and occasional artifacts of a ritual nature.


          We are not the first to appreciate the presence of Tanoan shrines. Nelson considered Espejo’s observation when the shrines were still in active use: “One particular interesting observation made by Espejo in 1582 was amply verified. He reported seeing many idols at the Rio Grande pueblos and also the presence of chapels, as he calls them, erected in high places. It is unfortunate that many of the statements made by this intrepid explorer cannot be accepted at face value, yet the finding of idols in the rooms of communal houses and also shrines built on hilltops and exposed places makes it clear that he saw and reported some things correctly. (Nelson 1914:111).”

          Even if we have not located all the shines and ceremonial features at Arroyo Hondo, the site is nestled in a homeland of numerous sacred features that vitalized their world of its inhabitants.  By using Tewa ethnographic analogy, we find most of these features may be explained and interpreted by Tewa mental templates and ethnography.  Arroyo Hondo has one outlying possible shrine on the Dorothy Stewart Trail and The World Quarter Shrine east of the pueblo. There are several others in close association of the site. One is an exotic stone with a possible petroglyph by the spring in the arroyo. Another is a very large and heavy boulder that had to be transported to the pueblo and other stones in association that appear to be an on-site major shrine.  The third is a sacred precinct consisting of numerous slicks ground into andesite at the west end of the site.  Other shrines consisting of cupuled boulders have disappeared from the site along with the World Quarter Shrine whose history is well documented (Boggess 2014).

          If there are sacred features at Arroyo Hondo that are easily recognized by the Tewa, why do not they or other pueblos claim it as an ancestral site? If Ann Palkovich’s “witchcraft hypothesis” (Palkovich 2016) remains part of a collective memory, it may be regarded as a profane rather than a sacred site.

          Further surveys on Thompson Peak, in and around the Arroyo Hondo site, as well as over undeveloped areas around the site up to a mile away may produce additional shrines to complement what we now have.


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