Chet Gorman, Ban Chiang’s Wild Ginger Man

June 27, 2011

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.