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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lewis Binford

lewisbinford.jpgReturning to archaeology for a moment here on Nomadic Thoughts, I thought I would talk about my latest paper, this time for the archaeological theory course I’m talking. We were asked to choose a prominent American archaeologist and write a biographical sketch about that person and give a 15-minute conference presentation to the class. It’s not due for over a week, but I need to have the paper finished by Friday morning because my sister is getting married this weekend in North Carolina.

I am writing about Lewis Binford, the SMU archaeologist who is best known for his association with the New Archaeology, a movement he helped start in the early 1960s and one that drastically changed how archaeology is done in the United States. There are several aspects of Binford’s life that I can relate to: he was born in the south (Norfolk, VA), was a Boy Scout, and received a B.A. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina. He also has an unwavering dedication to the scientific method and the entire scientific worldview. Binford embraces his ignorance and believes that lack of knowledge is the most satisfying aspect of science because it drives us to learn more. Much of this comes from his father, who taught him never to blindly accept received knowledge. This way of thinking stayed with Binford through the present, and is evident in his works about theory and method in archaeology. One of his first published papers, Archaeology is Anthropology (1962, American Antiquity 28:2), is a bold statement about how archaeology really does have something to say about the human condition. Before then, and during Binford’s UNC and Michigan years, he became increasingly dissatisfied with how archaeology was often partitioned off from ethnography and cultural anthropology. This is still true today, with some cutting all ties to anthropology to form separate archaeology departments. What Lewis Binford did was bridge the gap that, at that time, was inherent in the field. The 1962 American Antiquity paper didn’t single handedly change the face of the discipline in the United States, nor did Binford, but he certainly elucidated and put on paper some revolutionary ideas that did have a great impact on method and theory in archaeology. The impression I get from reading Binford’s and others’ writing from the 60s is that archaeology was asleep up until then. It needed to be shaken up and reinvigorated so that it had contemporary relevance. Binford provided the initial push to this reorganization of thought and it snowballed from there.

One thing about Lewis Binford’s writing is that it is sometime (ok, often) hard to understand. He himself has even admitted that he does this on purpose, because if he writes clearly and the reader immediately understands what is being argued, then there is a risk that it will be blindly accepted and perpetuated as received knowledge. By burying his meaning in complicated prose Binford forces the reader to consciously deconstruct his argument by reading slowly and rereading even more slowly. Both Lewis Binford the man and Lewis Binford the archaeologist is a little rough around the edges, and this is precisely what made him so influential in the field.

I was having trouble coming up with a good introduction to hook my readers so I decided to take a hint from my professor and try out a little humor. Whether its actually funny or not is a matter of debate, but I’m sure it's amusing at the very least:

If the life of Lewis Roberts Binford was an artifact, it would be classified as grit-tempered with a serrated edge. As a feature, it would be described as a highly visible, multi-use structure with cross-generational significance. Articles would be published, volumes would be edited, and entire symposia would be organized for the purpose of trying to solve the problem of what the artifact once represented, if anything at all. Scholars would debate whether or not its true meaning can be gleaned from a mere surface examination of form. A processalist would subject the Binford life to a series of quantitative analyses in an effort to determine if variation can tell us something about its use. Far away, in a distant land, a post-processualist would claim that we can understand the Binford life’s meaning only by examining ourselves first. Somewhere in Florida, a graduate student would attempt to write a paper about the Binford life and immediately realize that an amusing introduction was the only way to maintain sanity during the course of his research. Usually artifacts can’t talk; we have to speak for them and give them meaning ourselves. In this case, the artifact can talk and it has had quite a bit to say over the years.

Most of the information I’m getting about Binford’s early life and college/graduate years comes from two volumes: An Archaeological Perspective by Binford and Conversations with Lew Binford by Paula Sabloff. The latter is an easy read and very fascinating.

Posted by Will at October 22, 2006 03:34 PM in Archaeology


...but if Binford's right wouldn't Sabloff's book be even more fascinating if it was a difficult read? :)

Posted by: alun [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 23, 2006 06:13 AM

Ha...I never said I agreed with Binford! I actually don't really like his writing style and think it's hard to understand, and that that's NOT a good thing (especially for a newbie in the field).

Posted by: Will [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 23, 2006 10:31 AM