Chet Gorman: Ban Chiang’s Wild Ginger Man


It’s been more than thirty years since Chet Gorman died. He is unmistakable in his photographs with his blazing red beard, often wearing florid Hawaiian shirts and with 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. Solheim sent Chet to Thailand for the first time in 1963-64, where he discovered the site of Non Nok Tha. In 1965-66, he was in Thailand for his doctoral research, when his focus shifted from the plains to the Thai hills along the Burmese border and he found Spirit Cave (see map below). 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 archaeology 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, and to give interviews in Thai to Thai reporters.

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. Froelich (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. Long-time Penn Museum volunteer John Hastings remembers: “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 four decades later, “I don’t want any female graduate students,” was his answer. But she persevered and became Chet’s only female student at Penn. 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.”

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

If Chet became the subject of a conversation, it was sure to lead to a colorful story. 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 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