Penny Minturn

Archeologist's passion lies in the past


Is Penny Minturn's life anything like that of her profession's most well-known cinematic embodiment, Indiana Jones?

"I like to think it is," the Payson archeologist answers. "I haven't had to fight off too many bandits. But I do hear the Indiana Jones theme music in the background whenever I arrive at a dig."

Okay, so maybe as Minturn said that, her tongue is buried as deeply in her cheek as an artifact in King Tut's tomb. But one thing is certain: Ol' Indy couldn't possibly love his job as much as this woman loves hers.

Minturn's route to historical excavation, however, was circuitous to say the least.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., she grew up on a cattle-pig-chicken farm in Kearney, the hometown of Jesse James."I loved living on a farm," she remembers before adding a caveat. "Of course, I didn't have to milk the cows. My dad did that."

Once she finished high school, Minturn had a very clear goal in mind: "To get out of that little town. So I went to the big city of Columbia, Mo., which had about 50,000 people. It was huge!

"Right about that time there was a TV show called 'Sierra.' It wasn't on very long, but it really impressed me. The main characters were rangers in Yosemite and, oh man, that's what I wanted to do."

So Minturn entered college and spent three-and-a-half years pursuing that dream but stopped just short of obtaining a degree.

"By then I knew that forestry wasn't what I wanted," she said. "I found out that forestry was going out and actually planting and harvesting the trees. Well, I'm too much of a people person for that kind of work. And it was nothing at all like 'Sierra.'"

When she was a senior member of the local forestry club, she met her future husband, Jim.

"Each group of initiates was taken out into the Ozarks, all tied together, and then we'd let them loose and they'd have to find their ways back. Jim was one of the guys in my group. I guess I made an impression on him. One night I invited him over to dinner, and we've been together ever since."

They married in 1979. In March, 1980, Minturn's husband was offered a job as a seasonal firefighter in Tonto Basin.

"I had never been west of Colorado," Minturn said, "but we both quit our jobs and headed to Punkin Center.

"After we passed Winslow and headed south, I started getting a little nervous because the terrain was so flat and barren. When we hit Payson my first thought was, 'Oh, thank God it doesn't all look like that.'

"And after going through Winslow, even Punkin Center looked great."

As her husband fought fires, Minturn sat in their trailer and did ... not much of anything.

"I didn't know a soul. I did a lot of knitting and cooking. I finally met one woman who saved my life just by being someone I could talk to."

During one of those off-fire seasons, Arizona State University was working on its Ash Creek archeological dig along Highway 188 near Roosevelt Lake, and Jim was hired on as a local laborer.

"He took me out to a site one evening, and that was it," Minturn said. "I suddenly remembered that, when I was a sophomore, I wanted to be an archeologist. I even wrote an essay about it, where I said, 'In 10 years I want to be on a dig somewhere with my husband, who is also an archeologist.' I completely forgot about that.

"Well, ASU was going to need somebody to replace my husband, because he was going back to work as a firefighter, so I asked if I could have his job. They said yes and I've been doing archeology ever since."

After going back to school and earning her bachelor's degree, followed by her master's degree, Minturn is well on her way to her Ph.D. And she now teaches anthropology at Eastern Arizona College.

Minturn has participated in digs all over the world to Mexico, to Egypt, to points all over the U.S. and, of course, the whole stretch of Arizona.

"I've found some incredible things," she said. "In Tonto Basin, I found an effigy vessel that was shaped like a horny toad. It brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. It was perfect." Although determining the age of such artifacts is not Minturn's area of expertise, she makes the "wild guess" that the piece dated back to "about 1150 ... I just find it to be really exciting to think that you're the first person that has held this since it was placed there."

Minturn's specialty is burials, which includes the goods that are placed within the burial and her "real specialty," the bones themselves. "Basically, what I try to figure out from the bones is the age of the person, the sex, any pathologies or sickness that have left a mark."

Out of the 2,000 burials Minturn has unearthed, one sticks in her memory above the others. "It was a very young child, probably just a couple of months old, which we'd found down by Pueblo Grande near Phoenix. It was in the fetal position, and its fingers were still in its mouth. That stuck with me."

Minturn and Jim finally left Punkin Center, moving to Payson in 1995. She loves this town and this area, she said, because it is so archaeologically rich. But she's not about to call it her favorite place in the world to exhume ancient bodies.

"I have to say that when I'm in the field, digging, I don't care where I am, because one dig is as interesting as any other in its own way," Minturn said. "Just give me a square inch of dirt just about anywhere in the world, and I'm very happy."

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