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Enrollee Spotlight


Enrollee Spotlight

Don Merritt
ACES Enrollee

While his job may not be quite as hazardous to one’s health, Don Merritt could be called the ‘Indiana Jones’ of the ACES Program.  Like Harrison Ford’s fictional character, Don is an archaeologist searching for evidence of ancient cultures.  But instead of running off to exotic locales in search of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, you will most often find Don scouring a topographical map looking for evidence of relatively small, earlier cultures along a riverbed or a stream and/or researching state archives for references to information about earlier discoveries.

Don’s job is to survey areas to be impacted by new NRCS projects for evidence of prehistoric or historic sites that would be destroyed through construction activities.  From the 1940’s through the 70’s, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers constructed large reservoirs which permanently flooded many sites.  While some of the information was salvaged, much of the evidence of earlier, unknown cultures was lost.  The prehistoric sites and artifacts at these sites are now irretrievable and the long-ago people who made them may forever be a mystery.

In an effort to prevent such losses to our country’s historic heritage, state and federal agencies have been working with the National Register of Historic Places, evaluating proposed construction sites for evidence of cultural resources that should be investigated before groundbreaking begins.  Don is one of those charged with the site and archival research necessary to survey an ‘Area of Potential Effect’ for the likelihood of cultural resources being present and reports his findings to the State Cultural Resource Coordinator.  Don says most of the sites he surveys are the small prehistoric campsites in which he often finds traces of the previous occupations including campsites and villages, lithic scatters (chips of the flint often used for arrowheads and other weapons), stone tools and, from later cultures, shards of ceramics.  Some of what is found in these small campsites is evidence of prehistoric trade patterns, e.g., copper from the Michigan was traded for shells from the Gulf Coast.

Don’s interest in archaeology started in junior high school when a teacher sponsored an archaeology club and then, later in college, he took a summer job digging with University of Tennessee students for the TVA’s dam on the Duck River at Normandy.  Back in college at Middle Tennessee State University, he could only minor in Anthropology because there were so few courses available.  He then obtained a Masters degree from Florida State University and did post graduate work in Archaeology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  Since then, Don has worked for several public agencies and corporations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri.

Don’s involvement with NRCS began as a consultant when federal agencies had no cultural resources officer and needed assistance with site surveys and training.  When he heard about the ACES Program, he applied and has been providing archaeological assistance to NRCS on a full time basis ever since, thus demonstrating the surprising breadth of the agency’s conservation efforts on behalf of the American people.  Don says, “Since the Native Americans were the first farmers on our land, we need to preserve any information remaining about their contribution to our modern lives.”