The Rim country's prehistoric past comes alive Saturday with the public grand opening of the Museum of Rim Country Archaeology.
Festivities begin at 11:30 a.m. at the new museum at the Payson Womans Club on Main Street. MRCA, the acronym the museum goes by, occupies the space where the library used to be on the western side of the building.
Besides a ribbon and cake cutting ceremony, the public is invited to witness MRCA volunteers placing their handprints on a volunteers wall "in somewhat the manner of the ancient ones," according to Sharesse von Strauss, director of the Northern Gila County Historical Society.
The ancient ones are the Bunheads, a prehistoric people that occupied about 1,000 sites around the Rim country. The Bunheads were unique among their contemporaries including the Sinagua, Anasazi, Mogollon, Salado and Hohokam for 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.
Local archaeologist Penny Minturn who, along with von Strauss is primarily responsible for the new museum, says there are a couple of theories about the protrusion, which ranged in size from a baseball to a softball:
Since the occipital bun has been found in European Neanderthals and in Australian aborigines, it is possible that a yet undiscovered link exists between these peoples and the Rim country Bunheads.
It is also possible that the occipital bun is a genetic aberration, an independent development that "just happened."
What archaeologists do know is that the community of Rim country Bunheads was at the very heart of the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest. The Bunheads were literally surrounded by the Sinagua to the north, the Anasazi to the northeast, the Mogollon to the southeast, the Salado to the south, and the Hohokam to the southwest.
"It was kind of a crossroads, and the center of a lot of trade networks," she said.
"MRCA houses artifacts primarily from two Bunhead sites, Risser Ranch Ruins and Q Ranch," von Strauss said.
Risser Ranch Ruins is 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, according to von Strauss.
"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 "conventional" part of the museum includes educational displays and such artifacts as ceramics and pottery, beads, arrowheads, stone tools, and even bird bones.
"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 features a reconstruction of an underground kiva where a shaman or priest would conduct religious ceremonies.
Another exhibit incorporates reproductions of actual petroglyphs found on the undercuts of rocks in the Flowing Springs area. One large glyph appears to be a ring of turtles, a sign, Minturn says, that probably meant, "This is my territory. Do not enter."
The idea was to make MRCA much more than a stodgy museum full of tools and pots, von Strauss said. Most archaeological museums, she says, are sterile and dry.
"It's dehumanized," she said, "and that's one thing that archaeology isn't."
To avoid that feeling at MRCA, a character named AO (for Ancient One) has been created.
"He is a representative of the culture here from about 1200 A.D.," von Strauss said. "AO takes you on a tour of his culture. He talks in terms of, 'My culture too laughed and loved and cried and fought, just like yours did, and I want to introduce you to my culture.'"
The idea is to make a visit to the museum as close as possible to a virtual experience.
"Visitors will be able to walk in and become archaeologists to experience the excavation process," von Strauss said.
Upon entering the building visitors will immediately come upon a welcome station and gallery gift shop featuring the work of such local artists as Dick Wolfe, Melissa Ann Peters, Rock Newcomb, Carolyn Grimes, and Carole and Al Snyder. Many of their works incorporate the designs of the ancient peoples of the southwest.
Ascending a ramp, visitors encounter the first set of exhibits on the tools of archaeology and how archaeologists use them.
"We start off with displays from the early '30s ... and there are photographs of sites and what stabilization is about and field notes from different sites and how they're taken," von Strauss said.
Traveling deeper into the display area, the mysteries of ancient cultures unfold. Presentations include maps of trade routes, food sources, tools and hands-on activities.
"Through the experience we want people to define for themselves how that civilization lived," she said. "When they walk out, we want them to feel that they really understand the culture."
The museum's regular hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free this Saturday, the regular fee is $2 for adults, $1.50 for seniors and $1 for students.