Wilhelm “Bill” G. Solheim, II

November 19, 1924 – July 25, 2014

The Department of Anthropology at University of Hawai`i at Mānoa was greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Wilhelm ‘Bill’ Solheim II, on July 25, 2014. Bill Solheim, who joined the department in 1961, was a pioneer and influential leader in the field of Southeast Asian archaeology, until and after his retirement from UHM in 1991. Born on November 19, 1924 in Champaign, Illinois, his botanist father (Wilhelm Gerhard Solheim) moved the family moved to Laramie Wyoming when Bill was five years old. Bill junior entered the University of Wyoming in 1941, majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Physics. In 1943 he joined the US Air Force to train as a meteorologist. He spent his Air Force years stationed in Casablanca, central coastal Africa, and Germany. In 1947, Bill returned to the US to finish his BA degree in Mathematics in 1947; he then attended the University of California-Berkeley for an MA degree in Anthropology.

Bill told me once that his interest in Southeast Asia began in his youth, after having watched the young Indian actor Sabu in the British adventure film “The Elephant Boy” (1937). Entranced by the jungles, the elephants, the cobras, and cave treasures, he viewed that Indian part of Monsoon Asia as indistinguishable from the jungles around Angkor: “Immediately when I saw that I told myself that is where I want to do my archaeology” (p.c., 5/29/2003). Sabu’s South Asian lands lay west of the region where Bill would spend his career, but was linked in climate and, in some respects, culture, to mainland Southeast Asia.

With MA in hand, Bill Solheim arrived in the Philippines for the first time on November 30, 1949; Dr. H. Otley Beyer (Doyen of Philippine Anthropology and Archaeology): quickly took Bill under his wing. In Bill’s three subsequent years living in the Philippines, he worked in 1950 at Calatagan (Batangas): and in May 1951 in western Masbate (including work at Kalanay Cave site) . Bill took Beyer’s classes and got field excavation experience in Luzon. Following advice from Fred Eggan (University of Chicago): Bill began his PhD degree in 1954 at the University of Arizona, and used the Kalanay (Masbate Island, Philippines) assemblage for his doctoral thesis under the advising of Dr. Emil Haury, one of the leading Southwestern archaeologists at the time. While most of his work concentrated in Southeast Asia, Bill also worked on Pacific collections (Gifford’s Fijian ceramics at Berkeley, field survey and excavations near Bird’s Head, West Papua [1976, 1998]) and gained some North American Paleoindian experience as Emil Haury’s PhD student. Bill’s doctoral research on collections from the central Philippines developed into a lifelong interest in connections between the Visayas (central Philippines) and the Sa Huynh culture (central Vietnam). Bill completed his PhD at the University of Arizona in 1959, and joined Florida State University in 1960. Bill moved to the UHM Department of Anthropology in 1961.

Wilhelm “Bill” Solheim II is considered a founder of today’s Southeast Asian archaeology, and has, in fact, been called “Mr. Southeast Asian Archaeology” (Paz 2004:xii). His doctoral research on collections from the central Philippines developed into a lifelong interest in connections between the Visayas (central Philippines) and the Sa Huynh culture (central Vietnam) and interregional networks that knit together islands across a vast Southeast Asian seascape. Bill’s geographic scope of interest continued to expand as he worked in the region and – like his University of Arizona mentor, Emil Haury – learned the region’s culture histories and artifact assemblages.

For largely geopolitical reasons, as America’s interest turned to Indochina, Bill began working in NE Thailand in the early 1960s in connection with the US Agency for International Development’s proposed dam/reservoir project. He and Olav Janse were not successful in securing the kind of funding they believed necessary for salvage archaeology associated with the dam construction, but he and his students worked with Thai Fine Arts Department archaeologists on the Khorat Plateau from 1963 until 1968 on surveying and testing a series of eight threatened sites (Solheim and Hackenberg 1961). Most famous among these was the site of Nam Phong 7, or what came to be known as Non Nok Tha (ca 5000/4500-2500 BP): in the Nam Phong reservoir region (Bayard 1970). Another site, Ban Chiang (ca 4100-1800 BP): was excavated by Chet Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa in the 1970s. Both sites have produced a wealth of cultural and biological evidence for understanding the prehistory of the region. He also worked elsewhere in Southeast Asia (like Johore Lama, Malaysia [Solheim and Green 1965]; Gua Sirih, Borneo 1959]): in Sri Lanka (Solheim and Deraniyagala 1972], and visited innumerable archaeological sites in the region.

Most Southeast Asian archaeologists have engaged with Bill Solheim or with his ideas through our careers. Bill’s substantive contributions concerned ceramic studies and interregional interactional networks, but perhaps his greatest international attention derived from his 1960s/1970s claims that Southeast Asia was the hearth of both the earliest agriculture (e.g., Solheim 1972) and the earliest metallurgy (e.g., Solheim 1968). This unrepentant chauvinism, or “Southeast Asia-centric point of view” (Cravath 1986:180; see also Mabbett 1977:5-6), was one of Bill’s most appealing qualities. It also allied him with other key Southeast Asian scholars in a chain that stretches back into the 1940s with J. C. Van Leur’s (1967) pre-independence writing on Southeast Asian history. Subsequent field-based investigations – and analyses by his students and close associates -- did not support Bill’s claims that Southeast Asia had the earliest farming or plants. Yet these very claims elevated the region’s importance on the world archaeological stage, and are thus perhaps his greatest contribution to our field.

Bill Solheim was, evidently, a gentle and open-minded mentor. He advised many graduate students at UHM, working in a Quonset hut from 1961 to 1970, and then moving to Dean Hall. Solheim’s students worked in the Pacific and Asia. Some of his Pacific archaeology PhD’s include Paul Rosendahl, Paul Cleghorn. His Southeast Asian archaeology students included Chet Gorman, Karl Hutterer, Donn Bayard, Jean Kennedy, S. Jane Allen, David Welch, and Judy McNeill, all of whom have made significant contributions to the region. He also worked closely with Southeast and South Asian colleagues, and welcome interaction from students and faculty throughout the region.

Bill Solheim’s legacy rests as much in his service to his field as it does in his research contributions. While still a doctoral student, Bill began the journal Asian Perspectives in 1957, and served as its editor-in-chief for nearly three decades. Bill forged important ties with researchers working across Asia, and became close friends with both western and Southeast Asia-based archaeologists in several countries. He was one of only three trained archaeologists that Tom Harrisson ever invited to his Niah Cave excavations, and he stayed three days (Solheim 1977:33). Bill Solheim helped revive the Far Eastern Prehistory Association in 1953, and transformed it into the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association in 1976 and served as its first President from 1976-1980. He retired from the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa in 1991, and joined he Archaeological Studies Program (University of the Philippines) in 1997. Bill Solheim was a Founding Fellow of the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After the establishment of the Archaeological Studies Program at the University of the Philippines in 1995, Bill shipped his entire academic book collection to the program. Soon thereafter he founded a research station at the site of Ile Rockshelter and Cave in northern Palawan. In 2003, the Solheim Foundation was established to promote archaeology in the Philippines.

Wilhelm G. “Bill” Solheim II affected most Southeast Asian archaeologists trained from the 1960s through the 2000s in one way or another. That most of us did not study under his tutelage was no matter to him; he knew many of us, and treated all with warmth and collegiality. Jack Golson and Jean Kennedy, his colleague and former student, noted that his “most important motive has always been an open-minded curiosity” (2004:8). To that we would add that his deep affection for Southeast Asia: its lands, its history, and its people. I once tasked Bill with discussing heritage preservation for a UH-Mānoa class visit more than 15 years ago. When he reached the subject of Angkor, he choked up and could not speak for a moment. After recovering his composure, he spoke fondly of the temples, the archaeologists, and … the Khmers. In losing Wilhelm G. Solheim II, Southeast Asian archaeology has lost an advocate, a scholar, and a friend.

Miriam T. Stark
University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
(September 25, 2014)

References cited

Bayard, D. and W.G. Solheim II. 2009-2014. Archaeological Excavations at Non Nok Tha Northeastern Thailand, 1965-1968. Online publication of the Micronesian Area Research Center, Unviersity of Guam.

Bayard, D. T. 1969. Excavation at Non Nok Tha, northeastern Thailand, 1968: An Interim Report. Asian Perspectives 13:109-143.

Cravath, P. 1986. The ritual origins of the classical dance drama of Cambodia. Asian Theatre Journal 3(2):179-203.

Golson, J. and J. Kennedy. 2004. Hail to the chief: A tribute to Bill Solheim. In V. Paz (Editor): Southeast Asian Archaeology: Wilhelm G. Solheim II Festschrift, pp. 8-25. Quezon City University of the Philippines Press.

Mabbett, I. W. 1977. The ‘Indianization’ of Southeast Asia: reflections on the prehistoric sources. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 8(1):1-14.

Paz, V. (editor) 2004. Southeast Asian Archaeology: Wilhelm G. Solheim II Festschrift. Quezon City University of the Philippines Press.

Solheim, W. G., II. 1968. Early bronze in northeastern Thailand. Current Anthropology 9(1):59-62.

Solheim, W.G., II. 1972. An earlier agricultural revolution. Scientific American 226(4):34-41.

Solheim, W.G., II, D. Bulbeck, and A. Flavel. 2006. Archaeology and Culture in Southeast Asia: Unraveling the Nusantao (revised edition). Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press. ISBN 971-542-508-9

Solheim, W.G., II and S. Deranigyagala. 1972. Archaeological survey to investigate Southeast Asian prehistoric presence in Ceylon. Ancient Ceylon: Journal of the Archaeological Survey Department of Ceylon, Occasional Paper, 1.

Solheim, W.G., II and R.A. Hackenberg. 1961. The importance of anthropological research to the Mekong Valley Project. France-Asie 17:2459-74.

Solheim, W.G., II and E. Green. 1965. Johore Lama excavations, 1960. Federation Museums Journal X New Series: 1-6.

Van Leur, J.C. (1967) Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History. The Hague: W. van Hoeve.

Partial Wilhelm G. Solheim II Bibliography

Memories of Wilhelm “Bill” G. Solheim, II