ALBUQUERQUE — More than a couple of decades ago, Maisie Morris found herself at 8,000 feet sitting in the dirt and "wondering what on earth I got myself into this time."
It turned out to be something she loved, because the retired drug store clerk and supervisor from San Diego has been coming back every year since 1986 to the summer archaeological program at Ghost Ranch, first as a student, now as an instructor and crew leader for cataloging artifacts.
And her story isn't unique. A sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm unites participants in the program, which has been going strong for 41 years at the conference center owned by the Presbyterian Church in northern New Mexico.
Other people, they said, just don't get why anyone would want to spend one or two weeks every summer scraping dirt, scooping it into a bucket, then shaking it through a screen while swirls of dust coat their arms and faces.
And paying for the privilege.
"You go home and tell your friends about it, and they just don't get it," said Francie Goodrich of Seattle, imitating their confounded expressions. "It's nice to be among people who get into it."
Subsidized by the Presbyterians until 2010, Ghost Ranch is now required to be self-supporting. It offers 200 to 300 courses each year to bring people smack into the middle of Georgia O'Keeffe country, where a cell phone signal doesn't reach, according to Linda Seebantz, director of marketing.
"It's very much a throwback to church camp," she said.
And the archaeology course is one of the oldest, started by the late Florence Ellis in 1971.
Crews can sift through dirt at a dig, or spend time in the lab cataloguing the artifacts that are uncovered. File cards give a record of the items, and tell an interested researcher where to find the artifacts stored in clear plastic bags arranged in carefully labeled boxes.
Fire-cracked rocks, obsidian or chert points, pieces of bone or pottery are the most frequent finds, according to Cheryl Muceus, director of museums at Ghost Ranch. Two digs are currently under way on the 21,000 acres of the ranch, according to Seebantz.
At one of them, which has revealed hearths near a small cliff overhang and an unexpected flagstone floor, program participants were on their knees scraping grids of earth.
A couple of them were brushing dirt away from a burnt log. A victim of lightning or a sign of human use? No one knows yet, said Richard Binggeli, retired from the psychology faculty at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and crew chief for the dig.
"In 1973, someone found a pot down under a tree by the wash," he said, motioning southward from the dig. Not far away was the site of a house that had burned down, with vigas suggesting it might have been built in the fall of 1781, he said.
Two hearths are at the site, one from AD 750 and another from 1050. More "modern" leavings included graffiti indicating Nicolas Lovato was there in 1916.
But some items found at the site have been carbon-dated back to 4000 B.C., with an outlier registering as 8000 B.C., according to Binggeli. Some of the students get so involved that they pay for a radiocarbon test themselves, Binggeli said, adding that it costs "$1,000 a pop."
"The story of humankind is always exciting, always a surprise, and comes out different than you expected," he said in explaining his interest in archaeology.
"It's not romantic," he added, as he and others snorted at the Indiana Jones movie version of the science.
The Archaic Period of Native American history being explored at the dig doesn't have exciting walls and kivas to discover, so it is often neglected. "This is the missing story," Binggeli said of the dig, which, with every 10 centimeters, goes back another 200 years.
His wife, Donna Binggeli, was lyrical in explaining the intimacy she feels with a piece of the past unearthed and held in her hand, as opposed to something she might see under glass in a museum. "Metates get real personal for me," she said, referring to curved hollows in stone where corn was ground. "What woman was making food for her children, as I was in my lifetime? You pick up a point, it's just beautiful . Who were these people? It's really intriguing."
Beth Parisi of Santa Fe said that, while she still worked in her accounting business, she was active with groups that volunteered to monitor and protect archaeological sites. Then, she found out about the course at Ghost Ranch, which she's been attending for the last four or five years, and sparkled at the realization that "I can get in there and mess around!"
In her explorations throughout the area, her most exciting discoveries, she said, were a turkey bone flute at a Chaco outlier site, and a small, clay figurine of a deer near Otowi. "Both were on federal land, and they're still where they were," she added, stressing that she left the items in place.