The Rim country is about to get a new museum and its original inhabitants a new home.
The Northern Gila County Historical Society has reached an agreement with the Payson Womans Club to house a Museum of Rim Country Archaeology in the portion of its Main Street facility formerly occupied by the Payson Public Library. The historical society plans to hold a private opening March 29, with a public grand opening March 30.
The new museum will house artifacts from the area's prehistoric culture, a people who were contemporaries of the more commonly known cultures, including the Sinagua, Anasazi, Mogollon, Salado and Hohokam. But it will be far more than a museum full of tools and pots, according to NGCHS Director Sharesse von Strauss.
"We want to make it as close as we can to a virtual experience," she said. "Visitors will be able to walk in and become archaeologists to experience the excavation process. Through the experience we want people to define for themselves how that civilization lived. When they walk out, we want them to feel that they really understand the culture."
Among the areas that will help them do this is one "where visitors can play."
"For example, they will be able to grind corn on metates," she said. "We want them to understand the effort it took to feed one-self back then."
Another element of the museum will be a laboratory area where local and visiting archaeologists and anthropologists can conduct research. Local archaeologist Penny Minturn says that's what excites her most.
"This is what I would have dreamed such a research facility would be," Minturn said.
Besides the state archaeology society, Eastern Arizona College is also involved in the project. A classroom next to the laboratory will allow EAC-Payson archaeology and anthropology classes to have hands-on educational experiences. EAC-Payson Assistant Dean Barbara Ganz has even proposed offering an associate's degree in anthropology at the campus.
"This is exciting because it brings together a variety of attributes the community already has," Ganz said. "The geology and archaeology of the area are just prime for this kind of thing."
The "conventional" part of the museum will include educational displays and such artifacts as ceramics and pottery, beads, arrowheads, stone tools, and even bird bones.
"Most of the artifacts will come from two sites, at least initially Risser Ranch Ruins and Q Ranch," said von Strauss.
"There was a turkey pen close to the Risser site, so that's how the bird bones fit in."
A special ceremonial room off the main exhibit room will feature a reconstruction of an underground kiva where a shaman or priest would conduct religious ceremonies.
The hammers, chisels and other tools of the archaeologist will also be featured prominently.
"What's really interesting is that the tools haven't changed that much from the '20s to 2002," von Strauss said.
What you won't find at the new museum are human remains.
"You just don't go around showing skulls," von Strauss said. "It's considered very rude, and besides there's a federal law an agreement with the Native Americans that an archaeologist has to be on-site where bones are found to make sure they are properly moved and repatriated. The appropriate tribe also has to be contacted. We're working with the Hopis, as far as Risser is concerned."
Risser Ranch Ruins is located on a vacant lot in the middle of a Payson subdivision. It was recently purchased for $94,000 by the Northern Gila County Historical Society.
Under an agreement between the society and the Shoofly Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society, Minturn and a team of volunteers are spending an average of two days a week excavating and stabilizing the site. Eventually it will be turned into a limited-access, education-oriented tourist attraction operated by the NGCHS.
Q Ranch, on private property near Young, is a site that has been undergoing excavation for about 12 years, von Strauss said.
"It's actually a field school where people can go in and be trained and certified," she said. "We are the repository for the artifacts (from that site)."
The two sites, and some 1,000 others around the Rim country, were home to a people with a physical characteristic that none of the other prehistoric peoples of North America had a protrusion on the back of their skulls called an occipital bun.
The protrusion, which ranged in size from a baseball to a softball, varied from one individual to the next. Because the bone itself looks like a bun and because it is located about where a hair bun would be, the prehistoric people of the Rim country have been given a working nickname the Bunheads.
Minturn says some archaic peoples who lived in the Southwest from 4,000 to 1,500 years had the trait.
"But once we get from 900 A.D. to 1250 A.D., we don't get (the occipital protrusions) anymore," she said.
What that suggests to her is that the Bunheads, "this little pocket of people," may be ancestors of these archaic people, and "may have been here for a long, long time.
With the opening of the Museum of Rim Country Archaeology, von Strauss and Minturn hope to give this ancient civilization new life and maybe one day determine definitively why it disappeared.