In just its second year of existence, the Museum of Rim Country Archaeology (MRCA) has undergone a complete makeover.
The impetus behind the facelift was an offer by a Valley artist to transform the museum's displays and walls into striking replicas of the cliffs and rock formations of the area.
"We received a call based on an article in The Arizona Republic," Northern Gila County Historical Society Director Sharesse von Strauss said. "It was from Tony Deleano, a faux painter, and he donated his time to create that whole feeling of the rocks and sheer cliffs."
Deleano used a combination of styrofoam, plaster, resins, polyurethane and sands to replicate the intricate textures of area rock formations, no two of which are alike.
Another component of MRCA's makeover is dramatic new lighting. "We got a grant for the track and recessed lighting, so now visually it's a No. 1 museum," von Strauss said.
From the beginning, the guiding principle behind MRCA was to create a living museum that provides a virtual journey into the past -- a place where visitors can, for a brief time, actually live the life of the prehistoric peoples of the area.
"Through the experience we want people to define for themselves how that civilization lived," von Strauss said. "When they walk out, we want them to feel that they really understand the culture."
The makeover has retained that concept and even enhanced it, according to Nadine Harris, MRCA manager. Harris, herself an artist, lived on the Navajo reservation for a number of years when she was married to a Navajo medicine man.
"Besides all new displays, we have the kids corner," Harris said. "They absolutely love it. It's the first place they go."
The highlight of this area is a receptacle full of sand where young visitors can actually use sifters to find corn, shards and other artifacts.
"Some are real, some we make," Harris said. "But the kids get to keep what they find and they are thrilled to no end."
Adults can also step back in time through such activities as grinding corn on real metates.
"We want them to understand the effort it took to feed oneself back then," von Strauss said.
A few weeks ago, a group of Apache women spent a whole day grinding corn at MRCA.
"They had a wedding to attend and they came in here and were here almost all day grinding corn for a cake," Harris said.
As she talked about MRCA's makeover, Harris occasionally had to raise her voice to be heard over the excited voices of children emanating from the museum's classroom/research area. There, members of the Junior Archaeology club were hard at work making pots using the same materials and methods the ancient ones used hundreds of years ago.
"We're making the clay from scratch," Kathy Aultman, one of the group's leaders, said. "The mud is a really clay soil from behind my house down in Deer Creek. We mixed it with some decomposed diabase from down near Jake's Corner to help bond it together. We mixed it up with our hands and are actually coiling pots the way the prehistoric people made them."
Emily Arnold, who is 10, chattered away as she shaped her pot.
"It's just fun being here," she said. "It's fun doing all this. I never really knew this at all before."
The Junior Archaeology group, which is open to children ages 6-16, meets every Wednesday afternoon at MRCA. Other October topics for the group include the hidden meaning of rock art, the versatility of rock and the ways prehistoric people used it, and prehistoric games and stories children learned.
"Hopefully we'll teach them some ethics -- how important it is to preserve our past and not steal artifacts or touch petroglyphs," Aultman said.
Because the group is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Payson, the only cost is an annual $5 membership fee to belong to the archaeology society. For more information on the Junior Archaeology group, call Aultman at 474-5175.
MRCA is located at 510 W. Main Street in the portion of the Payson Womans Club building formerly occupied by the Payson Public Library. It is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $2 for adults, $1.50 for seniors and $1 for students.