The Museum of Rim Country Archaeology was an idea without a home as recently as January, but celebrates its grand opening on Main Street June 1.
The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, although regular hours following the grand opening will be noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free Saturday, but an admission fee of $2 for adults, $1.50 for seniors and $1 for students will be charged thereafter.
The museum's new home is in the building that housed the old Payson Public Library on Main Street. The building, which belongs to the Payson Womans Club, will provide a new home for the Rim country's original inhabitants the prehistoric Bunheads.
The new museum, also known as MRCA, houses 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, Northern Gila County Historical Society Director Sharesse von Strauss said.
"One of the things that's always professionally and personally bothered me about many museums of archaeology is that it's dry," she said. "'Here's the pottery. Here's the trade issue. Here's this. Here's that.' It's dehumanized, 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 local artists. 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," she 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.
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.
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," von Strauss said. '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.
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 1,000 others around the Rim country, were home to a people with a physical characteristic that none of the other prehistoric people 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 the nickname the Bunheads.