Funeral services will be held Thursday at Four Oaks Funeral Home in Oneida for Tom Des Jean, a former archaeologist at the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. He died Monday, on his 72nd birthday.
Born in 1948, Thomas Paul Des Jean was originally from Indianapolis, and eventually moved to Oneida to accept a position with the National Park Service. He spent 28 years as the Big South Fork’s archaeologist, where his work to preserve the history of the relatively new national park had an indelible impact on the BSF’s formative years. Following his retirement, he stayed on in Scott County. An adjunct faculty member at Roane State Community College, he also assisted the Museum of Scott County’s efforts to preserve local history.
After graduating high school, Des Jean enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and served in the Navy’s Air Wing during the Vietnam War. Following the war, he enrolled at the University of Florida and earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
During his time at Florida, Des Jean attended field schools that allowed him to foster his archaeological skills. He focused on pottery of the Woodland era for his graduate thesis research, helped to document burial mounds at Cades Pond, and conducted work at plantation house sites off the coast of Georgia, including excavations at slave quarters at the King Plantation.
Des Jean would go on to become a noted archaeologist, recording over a thousand archaeological sites not just in the Big South Fork area but throughout the region. He began his career as a contract archaeologist, but later joined the staff of the National Park Service as a technician at Big South Fork. That was in 1986, when the BSF was still in its infancy.
When Des Jean made the move to the Big South Fork, he inherited the job of documenting archaeological evidence in a region where historical sites was rife with looting. He developed a monitoring plan for some of the park’s archaeological sites to stamp out that looting, and ultimately helped prosecute offenders who were destroying the archaeological record.
In 1987, four people were arrested with the help of remote sensing devices that had been placed on an archaeological site. The case garnered national attention, as the first time that violators of the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act had been charged as felons.
Des Jean once estimated that 40% of the archaeological sites in the Big South Fork had been looted by people looking for Indian relics, unintentionally destroying history in the process.
“Most people don’t comprehend the loss of information when you dig up one of these sites,” he said. “They are an irreplaceable part of our American heritage.”
In those early days, the archaeological record of the culturally-rich Big South Fork area was still scant. Des Jean helped to record more than 1,300 archaeological sites beneath cliff lines throughout the national park — the most of any national park in the southeastern U.S. (by comparison, fewer than 500 archaeological sites have been identified in the much larger Great Smoky Mountains National Park).
In 2004, after successfully overseeing his third looting case made under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, Des Jean was awarded the National Park Service’s Outstanding Service in Archaeological Resource Protection award. In that particular case, two men from Pulaski County, Ky., were apprehended as they dug and removed artifacts from inside a rock shelter.
Throughout his 28-year career with the National Park Service, Des Jean published a number of research papers and articles. Collectively, Des Jean’s works are responsible for much of what we now know about the Big South Fork’s history — including much of the information that is included in Independent Herald articles about the BSF.
Perhaps his best work was a paper examining the history of illicit moonshine-making activity within the Big South Fork. With the help of other archaeologists and volunteers, Des Jean documented dozens of still sites throughout the national park. One of his co-authors was the archaeologist who replaced him following his 2014 retirement, Timothy Smith. Smith later died in Wallula Gap, Wash. at the age of 39.
Des Jean is survived by his wife, Vicki, and children Nina Benton and Matthew Des Jean. Visitation will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday at Four Oaks of Oneida. A funeral service will be held at 7 p.m. with Father Sam Sturm officiating. Interment will be at East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery in Knoxville.