Chet Gorman, Ban Chiang’s Wild Ginger Man

Chester Gorman
Chet surveying on a river in northern Thailand.

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.

Chester Gorman
Chet relaxing on payday.

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 (link to photo slideshow below), 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 (see map). 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.

Map of Thailand
A map of Thailand showing sites discovered and/or excavated by Chester Gorman.

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.

Click here for the remainder of this article and photos of Chet.

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  • Chet smoked pipes

    Chet smoked a pipe, not cigars and the money shot was Not his payday but the crews payday. Careful else you change the historical context of the photos.

  • Corbin Ray

    Hi there. I noticed that the excavation of this particular skeleton took place in 1929-30, per your previous response. Why is it that 84 years later, the process of analysis and conservation is just now taking place? Is the current project simply building on previous efforts to conserve the remains or is it the product of new technologies that enable us to understand the skeleton in new ways? In other words, have there been previous attempts to analyze the skeleton or is its unique case just now seeing light?

  • mgleeson

    hi Reggie. The skeleton was buried under at least 40 feet of earth, in a layer of silt (or the “flood layer” as its often called) which was more than 10 feet deep in places. So yes, the bones are very fragile and fragmentary as a result. The wax was applied by the excavator, archaeologist Leonard Woolley, in order to keep the remains intact for lifting out of the ground, and we have some great archival images showing him doing this – both applying the wax and the remains being carried out of the excavation pit. The excavation took place in 1929-1930. In the lab, we are trying to remove this wax as much as possible, but to do so, we need to impregnate (consolidate) the bones with a new adhesive, to strengthen them enough to allow for mechanical removal of the wax. We will not be able to remove all of the wax, but hopefully we will reveal much more of the remains in the process. We are also avoiding doing any work in areas where the bone is preserved enough for analysis, such as isotope and DNA analysis. Thanks for your great questions!