The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

So Long Lew, Glad We Met You...

In a piece of news that comes as a blow to archaeologists, Lewis Binford has died at the age of 81.

Most of my readers are not archaeologists, and so I will need to explain who Lewis Binford was and why this matters.

Lewis Binford was one of the archaeologists who, in the 1960s and 1970s, pushed for new approaches and methods to become the standard model for how archaeology is done. He is often credited with popularizing ethnoarchaeology (the study of living people and the remains that they leave behind to better understand how the peoples of the past generated the material record that we dig up today) and experimental archaeology (the practice of making and using tools similar to those made and used by the people archaeologists study), and he articulated ideas and positions that coalesced into what is now known as processual archaeology (so called because it sought to find the abstract processes that underlay human behavior, looking for basic rules analogous to the laws of physics, rather than simply describe the archaeological record), the dominant school of archaeological thought in North America. The laws of human behavior sought by processual archaeologists have yet to be found, if they even exist, but the quest itself has yielded some wonderful discoveries nonetheless.

Binford is often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing archaeology, but this isn't really true. Many of the positions that he championed were already present, but he helped to make them more popular. And while he may not have created modern archaeology, he was very much a figure-head who had a large role in guiding the course that it took. He was a brilliant thinker, a lousy writer*, and a dominant figure. Like his work or not, it's difficult to think of an archaeologist who is anywhere near as influential as Binford.

He was certainly not without many critics, and many of the criticisms are both strong and valid. Nonetheless, his was a mind to be contended with.

I wrote previously about how the giants of my field are retiring. Binford loomed large even amongst these men. I never met him, but I feel a loss nonetheless. It'll be a good long time before we see another of his kind, and we are the poorer for that.

*He was known for writing papers that his supporters had to "translate from Binford to English" in order to explain them. He was also known for making up words, although these words had a habit of becoming part of our standard technical vocabulary.

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