April 12, 2011

Lewis Binford, RIP

Filed under: Uncategorized — acagle @ 12:50 pm

Lewis Roberts Binford (1930-2011)

I am very sorry to inform you that Professor Lewis Binford, the scholar whose name evokes an entire intellectual movement within archaeology, has passed away. His optimism and intellectual fervor have been a major influence on several generations of archaeologists.

Lewis Roberts Binford was born on 21 November, 1930. He graduated from the University of North Carolina (Bachelors), and the University of Michigan (Masters and PhD). He produced over 150 publications in the last 50 years, many of which became seminal papers in archaeological theory and method.

Very irritating web site, I’ll try to get a newer and better link up eventually.

Unlike Dunnell, I have no personal memories of Binford apart from how I came across him professionally. I guess at UW in the Dunnell era he was something of a common foil for our papers examining the New Archaeology. Also unlike Dunnell, Binford’s contributions to the field are widely acknowledged and his influence great. His name is virtually synonymous with the New Archaeology.

I’ll probably do a longer post later when I can do some more cogitating on it. Frankly, I really hated having to read his papers because I really didn’t like his writing style. It seemed so roundabout and wordy and I very often had no idea how he got from point A to point B and have to go back and read several paragraphs before I saw the connections.

Otherwise, I am off to the cemetery for some more headstone recording since it’s finally nice out. . . .

UPDATE: Rather than attempt my own ‘eulogy’ if you want to call it that, I’ll just link to a couple of obits and tributes:

“Lewis Binford led the charge that pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled archaeology into becoming a more scientific enterprise,” says David Meltzer, Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory at SMU. “The impact of his work was felt not only here in America, but around the world. Much of how we conceptualize and carry out archaeology in the 21st century is owed to Lew’s substantial legacy.”

Kristina Killgrove:

Every grad student entering the anthropology program at UNC hears the same possibly apocryphal story. In 1949, when Morehead Planetarium wanted a giant sundial in their rose garden out front, the archaeologists on campus help set it up, including a certain young undergraduate anthropology major by the name of Lewis Binford. On Monday, Binford – a giant in the world of archaeology – passed away.

Those are actually the only two I found right off the bat. More to come. Probably.

My first real exposure was his part in the Binford-Bordes debate on the meaning of variation in the Mousterian. As that link indicates, this was an early form of the style-function debate that Dunnell later latched onto. If you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion, you can wade through this document which has this nice summary:

[T]he Bordes-Binford debate is emblematic of the differing traditions within the discipline of archaeology as it was practiced by American and French scholars and that an understanding of the debate furthers understanding of how archaeology developed and is practiced and conceptualized in those countries today.

We usually make some sort of distinction between before the New Archaeology and after, as if there is some great divide that is obvious to all. It’s not that simple, of course. Archaeologists had been doing much the same thing before Binford et al. came up with their “scientific” archaeology, and one could argue that some of what the “old” culture historians were doing was in many ways far more scientific than the New Archaeology. They had, for example, developed a quantitative, replicable methodology for putting non-stratified assemblages into chronological order: seriation. Trouble was, they didn’t have any really explicit theory to go along with it and so their reasoning as to why it worked (though probably correct in a way) never sounded particularly rigorous, and they also tried to extend their typologies into other areas that they weren’t suited for — after all, the types were developed to tell time, not for anything else. And they had carried out a lot of ethnohistoric work in order to explain the past as well. Half of Kidder’s Southwest Archaeology is purely ethnographic, for example.

And, you know, part of this whole “that was them then, this is us now” is a bit of demagogy as well. It behooves young turks in any discipline to portray the “old guard” as doing something old and uninteresting while the new guys are new and exciting and, in this case, explicitly scientific. Eh, whatever, it’s part of the process.

He certainly touched on a lot of areas. Just off the top of my head (and a little Googling) gets me the Binford-Bordes debate, smudge-pits and hide smoking (analogy), the Pompeii Premise, middle-range theory, and Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology. Those first two are links to original papers so be sure to read them.

So, like him or hate him, agree with him or not, there was no ignoring him, and he and his contemporaries and followers changed the discipline. The exact balance of positive/negative influence won’t be known for decades, but one can’t deny that his work infused a new energy into archaeology and archaeologists generally.

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