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  • The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life
  • Wilhelm Solheim
The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life. Judith M. Heimann. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999. vii + 468 pp.; illustrations, maps, index, bibliography. Paperback, $26.95. ISBN: 0-8248-2199-8.

Judith Heimann has presented in her book what I feel is a very accurate, well-written and enjoyable picture of Tom Harrisson. This is the first time this has been done for a man who was and will remain a very important person in the development of archaeology in Southeast Asia, even though he was neither a trained nor a good archaeologist. Among other things Tom was an egomaniac. One little indication of this happened, in the Sarawak Museum: when he came across the misspelling of his name using only one "s" you could hear him scream in anger from one end of the building to the other.

After a major argument with Harrisson I seem to have been one of the few archaeologists who was a friend of his, admired him, and at the same time recognized the "Offending Soul" that he was. I organized a special issue of Asian Perspectives (Vol. 20, 1977) in memory of Tom and included in it was a bibliography of his writings that we could find concerning Southeast Asian archaeology and related subjects (Solheim and Jensen 1977). We listed 27 different obituary and memorial articles on him, written by 19 different people (Solheim and Jensen 1977 : 19-20). "I feel that the one fairly critical article I have seen on Tom's work has been mine on his treatment of the Niah archaeology" (Solheim and Jensen 1977 : iv). Besides Asian Perspectives, The Journal of the Malaysian Branch Royal Asiatic Society (50[1] 1977) and the Borneo Research Bulletin (8[2] 1976) also published memorial issues in memory of Tom. Many articles published since then have been quite disparaging.

Archaeology was only one rather small part of Tom's life and work. This part of his many research interests was primarily concerned with Sarawak, rather less with Borneo as a whole, but also concerned with Sarawak's and Borneo's place in Southeast Asia as a whole. Towards the end of his life he became interested in archaeological subjects concerning the Pacific. This was certainly in part because of his living virtually as a "native" in the Solomon Islands back in the 1930s. Of the 399 pages of text only a small portion of Part Five (Explorations and Excavations, pp. 288-303) and even smaller portions of Part Six (pp. 307-352) had to do with archaeology. These specific pages had little to do with archaeology, but rather were concerned with Tom and his involvement with the archaeology of Sarawak. Both Brunei and Sabah are mentioned, particularly in connection with his activities during the second World War and remarks on ethnographic subjects, but nothing about the archaeology he did there other than that he did a dig in each. [End Page 203]

Tom was many different things to many different people, and to most of these he was not only offending but obnoxious. It amazes me how well Heimann is able to present this very offending side of Tom without turning the reader against him. A reader who knows very little about archaeology, or about archaeology in Southeast Asia in particular, would learn virtually nothing about archaeology (not a good source), and only a bit more specifically about archaeology in and on Borneo.

I feel that it is of importance for archaeologists and prehistorians who are interested in Southeast Asia to read this book primarily to develop an understanding of Tom as a person. Then it is possible, I believe, to realize that Tom has been important in the early development of Southeast Asian prehistoric archaeology and that for Borneo the specialist must know the work that Tom did in Sarawak, Brunei, and Sabah. For much of the world Tom put Borneo and Sarawak on the map. If only for that alone he should be remembered as having been of major importance for the many subjects he worked and published on, archaeology included...


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