Digging Into The Past


The Shoofly Chapter of the Arizona Archeological Society really digs Risser Ranch.

That's where the group's 68 members go in the summer to recover the remnants of a civilization that thrived in the Rim country from 600 A.D. to 1350 A.D.

Audrey McDowell, the society's president, said those who belong to the group are the only ones who have permission to dig at the site.

"The society's been going since 1987," McDowell said. "I moved up to Payson in 1986. When I finally settled down, it was 1987. There was an ad in the Roundup about the society meeting."

The group had just formed in the winter of 1987, starting with about 40 members.

McDowell said she had no previous interest in archeology, but she soon learned to love digging in the earth to find the tools of an ancient civilization, studying what she'd found in the laboratory and writing reports on her finds.

"The more you know about it, the more you want to learn," she said.

McDowell didn't know then what she knows now -- that women have come to play a bigger and bigger role in the world of archeology.

"I asked if women could join," she said. "At the time, you didn't hear about women involved with archeology."

The membership then was divided between men and women and it remains so today.

"Women are now really accepted into the field," she said.

McDowell works as a volunteer at the Rim Country Museum, where the society has two exhibits, one upstairs -- a case filled with ancient tools, and one downstairs -- a panoramic view of the Risser Ranch area with metates (stone bowls and grinders used to make corn meal) on the ground in front of a wall recreated from "wall fall" -- stones found at the ranch that were once part of a wall.

"I've worked on some excavations in other areas -- Flagstaff and the Tonto Basin area," McDowell said. "It would be nice to do it as a living, but I prefer to do it as a volunteer. I like doing the field work and the laboratory work. We go on field trips, meet the second Saturday of every month at 9:30 a.m. at the museum."

In July and August, the group suspends its monthly meetings and spends its time working on projects and excavating at Risser Ranch in northeast Payson.

McDowell said many people in the group like the field work but lose interest when it comes to doing the lab work and writing reports.

"I like everything about archeology," she said. "I'm just kind of a nut about it."

The society has not identified the people they're studying, but call them "The Central Arizona Tradition."

"Hopefully, with excavating in the next three years, we'll find out more," McDowell said.

She said she thinks the people went to the Hopi, to the second Mesa, or possibly to the Zuni in southwestern New Mexico.

"It's just a theory," she said.

McDowell was just finishing her volunteer work at the museum Friday when a Rhode Island couple stopped by to take a tour. McDowell was compelled to tell them about the projectile points that are a part of the society's exhibit at the museum.

"Archeologists don't call them arrow heads," she said. "They're projectile points or points."

The carefully crafted points are kept in a case on the second floor of the museum with shaft smoothers and polishers, agave knives, bone tools, polishing stones and anvils.

Society members think the ancient people of the Rim country traded with people from Mexico, McDowell said, because of the shells that were found at Risser Ranch -- shell bracelets and pendants.

"We also found a copper bell," she said, "with a clapper. We think they used it for ceremonial purposes."

McDowell said she and other members of the group are looking forward to activities around the state, special events that are scheduled for March, which is Arizona Archeology Awareness Month.

"Our big thing is the 18th and 19th at the Arizona State Museum," she said.

The museum on the University of Arizona Campus, at Park Avenue and University Boulevard, is offering lectures and craft demonstrations, a tour of the collections storerooms, and a visit to the archeology and conservation labs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m March 18 and 19.

Anyone interested can call the museum at (520) 621-6302 for information.

"You'll get to throw an atalatal," McDowell told the couple from Rhode Island. An atalatal is an ancient tool that was used for hunting, much like the Australian boomerang.

"I enjoy archeology to no end," McDowell said after the couple had left. "We have a great group of people."

For information about the Shoofly Chapter of the Arizona Archeological Society, call McDowell at 474-6773.

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