Chet Gorman: Ban Chiang’s Wild Ginger Man


By Ardeth P. Anderson


[Published on June 6th, 2011] A couple of months ago, I attended an evening talk at the Penn Museum where movies of the Ban Chiang Project’s first director, Chester Gorman, were part of the speaker’s PowerPoint presentation. As I watched the grainy images of Chester (a. k. a. Chet) Gorman excavating at Ban Chiang, I thought about people in the audience who knew Chet. I wondered, was this the first time since his death that they had seen him “animated”? It can be an interesting experience observing a moving image of someone who has been gone so long—alive again, even if it is only an image on a screen.

Exactly thirty years have passed since Chet died. He is unmistakable in his photographs, with his blazing red beard, his florid Hawaiian shirts, and his big cigar cocked at a jaunty angle, the image of a pioneering and romantic archaeologist. Shortly after Chet’s death in 1981, his co-director Pisit Charoenwongsa (Fine Arts Department of Thailand) described him as, “…larger than life. A man of immense charisma, energy, charm, and humor, he formed lasting friendships with incredible ease. He was at home under any circumstances, from a bamboo shelter in the jungle to a Philadelphia cocktail party.”

Chet was born in Oakland, California. He grew up on his parent’s dairy farm in Elk Grove, California. His undergraduate degree in Anthropology came from Sacramento State College in 1961 and his Ph.D. from the University of Hawai’i under the guidance of Dr. William Solheim. Chet was sent to Thailand by Solheim for the first time in 1963-4. During this time, Chet discovered the site of Non Nok Tha. In 1965-6, Chet was in Thailand for his doctoral research but his focus shifted from the plains to the Thai hills along the Burmese border where he found Spirit Cave (see map). The professionalism and sensitivity with which Chet conducted the Spirit Cave excavation earned him international renown among archaeologists as well as respect from the Thai archaeological community. His ability to speak Thai also won him friends there; he was fluent enough to give public lectures and participate in debates in Thailand. He also gave interviews to Thai reporters in their own language. A map of Thailand showing sites discovered and/or excavated by Chester Gorman.Chet Sites-Web map-BC

In early 1973, during a break in the excavations of Spirit Cave, Chet made a contact that would prove to be a major turning point in his career. Fro Rainey, then director of the Penn Museum, recruited him to be the Museum’s representative for a large-scale investigation at the site of Ban Chiang in northern northeast Thailand.

Many aspects of the excavations at Ban Chiang were cutting edge for the time. As described in the Ban Chiang UpDATE article “Archaeocomputing” by long-time Museum volunteer John Hastings: “Back in 1973, Chet had tremendous foresight regarding the role that computers would be playing in archaeological research. He designed the excavation and artifact recording system from the beginning to be computerized, one of the first excavations probably in the world with this objective. The bag log and small find log numbering and recording systems were very computer-friendly. Moreover, Chet had all the materials recovered from the dig lent to the University Museum for analysis so that detailed measurements and observations could be systematically recorded and preserved in computer databases. In those days the data were fed into a mainframe computer on IBM punch cards and recorded on rolls of magnetic tape, and the programming was also done with punch cards.”

Dr. Joyce White, director of the Ban Chiang Project since 1981, recalls that when she was a first year graduate student at Penn, she walked into Chet’s office to declare her intention to become a Southeast Asian archaeologist, and to ask Chet to be her advisor. The response he gave is hard to believe 37 years later, “I don’t want any female graduate students,” was his answer. But she persevered and became one of Chet’s only female students. In Joyce’s words, “Chet’s students were more apprentices than advisees. Our education consisted less of being lectured at in a classroom, and more of the opportunity not only to observe, but to participate in the life of a scholar. We were instructed in how to be professional anthropologists.”

Joyce’s travels in Thailand would overlap with Chet twice during her time as his student. Once during the summer of 1978 and again the following year in October, he visited Joyce during her two-year stay at in the village of Ban Chiang. He was there as Joyce’s advisor in her PhD studies (she was investigating how local people identified and used native plants) as well as a font of practical advice, such as where she could take his Land Rover for service in the provincial capital of Udorn.

I personally never met Chet; I began my time here as a work-study student in 1990. My first assignment was to draw the pots of Ban Chiang. Although he was gone, Chet’s memory was kept alive here at the lab with stories and anecdotes told by those who knew him well. Joyce White, John Hastings, and various other visitors (including some ex-girlfriends) had many vivid descriptions of Chet’s personality. If Chet became the subject of a conversation, it was sure to lead to a colorful story.

BCES Burial 12 Pot A 981_400px

A ‘Carabel Type’ pot, BCES Burial 12 Pot B 1010, Middle Period.

One such story involved Chet, a woman named Carobel, and a distinctively shaped Ban Chiang pot. It ends in a way that could only be Chet. In 1977, Chet was giving a talk to a Ceramics Society in Hong Kong where he was showing slides of Ban Chiang pottery. As he was going through all the different pottery types—a beaker, a globular cord-marked, a white carinated—he came upon a particular pot in the slideshow which hadn’t been assigned a name yet. A woman named Carobel, whom he had met briefly before, inquired from the audience, “Chet, what’s the name of that pot?” To which Chet responded, “Why, it’s a Carobel pot.” And the woman asked, “Oh! Why is it a Carobel pot?” To which Chet replied, “Because it has a nice round bottom just like Carobel.” Chet recounted the story to Joyce when he returned to Philadelphia. Years later in 1982 when Joyce was writing the catalogue for the Smithsonian’s travelling exhibition Ban Chiang: Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age, she had to give a name to the pot, which appears on page 69. Not knowing the spelling of Carobel’s name, Joyce termed it a ‘Carabel Type’ pot. Years later in the 1990s, Joyce met Carobel (for the first time) and a mutual friend for lunch in Manhattan and the story was retold. Far from being offended by Chet’s comment, Carobel thought it was one of the highlights of her life and she wanted the story to be told at her funeral.

Chet’s life ended tragically on June 7th, 1981 when he died after a long bout with melanoma.

At a tribute to Chet shortly after his death, Pisit Charoenwongsa said, “The tragedy of his death was that all this was cut short. But he did at least leave behind him a solid body of academic achievement, the respect and admiration of the Thai people, and a legacy of memories in the minds of his hundreds of friends that will not disappear. It was a life to be proud of. Chet never talked about an epitaph, but one he would have liked is based on J. P. Donleavy’s character, one of Chet’s favorites: God’s mercy on the wild Ginger Man.”Chet and Pisit2