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Bill Solheim, a pioneer and influential leader in Southeast Asian archaeology, was a man of famously great appetites. Born on 19 November 1924 in Champaign, Illinois, his botanist father (Wilhelm Gerhard Solheim) moved the family to Laramie, Wyoming, when Bill was five years old. Bill entered the University of Wyoming in 1941, majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Physics. In 1943 he joined the US Army 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 USA to finish his BA in Mathematics; he then attended the University of California, Berkeley, for a MA in Anthropology.
Bill told me once that his interest in Southeast Asia began in his youth, after watching 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" (pers.comm. 29 May 2003). Sabu's South Asian lands lay west of the region where Bill would spend his career, but were 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 30 November 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 the Kalanay Cave site). Bill took Beyer's classes and gained field excavation experience in Luzon. Following advice from Fred Eggan (University of Chicago), Bill began his PhD in 1954 at the University of Arizona, and used the Kalanay (Masbate Island, Philippines) assemblage for his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Dr Emil Haury, one of the leading Southwestern archaeologists at the time.
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—he learned the region's culture histories and artefact assemblages.
While most of Bill's work concentrated in Southeast Asia, he also worked on Pacific collections (Gifford's Fijian ceramics at Berkeley, field survey and excavations near Bird's Head, West Papua [Solheim 1976]) and gained some North American Palaeoindian experience as Emil Haury's PhD student. Bill completed his PhD at the University of Arizona in 1959, and joined Florida State University in 1960. He moved to the University of Hawai'i Manoa (UHM) Department of Anthropology in 1961, and formally retired in 1991.
For largely geopolitical reasons, as America's interest turned to Indochina, Bill began working in north-eastern 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, surveying and testing a series of eight threatened sites (Solheim & Hackenberg 1961). Most famous among these was the site of Nam Phong 7, or what came to be known as Non Nok Tha (c. 3300–2500 BP), in the Nam Phong reservoir region (Bayard 1972). Another site, Ban Chiang (c. 3400 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 (e.g. Johore Lama, Malaysia [Solheim & Green 1965]; Gua Sirih, Borneo; Sri Lanka [Solheim & Deraniyagala 1972]), and visited innumerable archaeological sites in the region.
Bill Solheim was 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 PhDs include Paul Rosendahl and 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 welcomed interaction from students and faculty throughout the region.
Most Southeast Asian archaeologists have engaged with Bill Solheim or with his ideas throughout 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'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, serving as its first President from 1976–1980.
Bill Solheim built valuable bridges between Western-based Southeast Asian archaeologists and colleagues based in Southeast Asia. As one example, he pioneered Hawai'i's continuing connections with Vietnam during a most difficult period, the US embargo and non-recognition of that country between 1975 and 1994. Due to the high esteem in which he was held, he was the first University of Hawai'i faculty member and one of the first American scholars permitted by the Hanoi government to visit Vietnam after the war in 1982. This followed, at Bill's invitation, the first visit to the USA by the head of the Vietnamese National Institute for Archaeology, Pham Huy Thong. Bill's initial contacts made possible very early trips by several other Hawai'i faculty members, such as fellow biological anthropologist Michael Pietrusewsky, Vietnamese linguist Stephen O'Harrow and Vietnamese historian T.B. Lam, and led to the University of Hawai'i's being the principal point of academic contact between Vietnam and the USA throughout the embargo period.
Bill Solheim retired from the University of Hawai'i Manoa in 1991, and joined the Archaeological Studies Program (University of the Philippines) in 1997. He 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 programme. 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 to 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 (2004: 8), his colleagues and former students, noted that his "most important motive has always been an open-minded curiosity". To that I would add his deep affection for Southeast Asia its lands, its history and its people. I once tasked Bill with discussing heritage preservation for a UH Manoa 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.