Dr. Lewis R. Binford

Lewis Binford is best known for leading the "New Archaeology" movement of the 1960's. In this capacity, he challenged assumptions in the field of archaeology, while demanding that the science become, well, a bit more scientific.

Archaeology has long been associated with the acquisition of pretty things. This (as any archaeologist will gruffly explain) may occasionally be a facet of archaeology, but it is certainly not the driving force behind the field. Anyone who has spent hours in the field carefully surveying and mapping a site marked by nothing more than potsherds and lithic flakes will probably concede that there is more to the job than aesthetics.

So what exactly does archaeology do, if not methodically relieve dead people of cool stuff? Well, that's exactly what archaeologists were apparently wondering in the late 50's and early 60's. The general idea was to provide explanations of how an artifact was produced, how it was used, etc. Because of this approach, archaeology was limited to reconstructing the past.

Lewis Binford, in "Archaeology as Anthropology" (1962), began championing Processual archaeology (or "New Archaeology," as it became known). New Archaeology, to simplify a bit, looks at an artifact and attempts to explain why it was made, used, etc. The field moved from simply (well, painstakingly) reconstructing the past to attempting to answer questions typically left for cultural anthropologists: Why did societies do what they did?

By consulting the ethnographic record, Lewis Binford and other New Archaeologists believed that the past could be evaluated and explained. With deductive reasoning applied to the results, archaeology could provide universal rules of human behaviour. Archaeological data, therefore, should be compiled into a system against which hypotheses and proposed models could be tested.

New Archaeologists would eventually attempt to apply the General Systems Theory to societies. This would eliminate cultural biases when evalutating archaeological data. For the most part, this method is still in development.

Lewis Binford has maintained healthy skepticism, despite New Archaeology being a movement of optimism. Some may say his skepticism is a bit too healthy regarding certain matters. He has, for example, presented the theory that hominids did not begin seriously hunting game until the arrival of anatomically modern humans. He also claims that the supposed ritualistic intentions of certain Neandertal burials (such as the Shanidar Cave site) cannot be conclusively proven. This skepticism, however, falls in line with the demand that archaeology live up to its scientific obligations.

In summary, an archaeologist should be concerned about interpreting the past with ethnographical evidence and deductive reasoning. Hypotheses should be developed and tested against recorded archaeological and, when applicable, ethnographical data. And, most importantly, assume nothing.


Sources & Further Reading:
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Processual_archaeology
  • http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/abcde/binford_lewis.html
  • http://www.smu.edu/anthro/faculty/lBinford/lBinford.htm
  • http://www.utexas.edu/courses/wilson/ant304/projects/projects97/gebhardp/gebhardp.html

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