Touchstone Thursday: Lewis R. Binford’s ‘Archaeology as Anthropology’

I’ve been a little antipathetic toward today’s touchstone author since the early 90s when, at the end of his productive scholarly life, he was unable to transcend what I presume was his fear that the radical post-modern critique would forever doom archaeology to ‘wallowing in minutiae’ and thereby contributing nothing of lasting scientific merit to our knowledge of past peoples’ lives, of what brought about culture change, and of the anthropological value of the archaeological record. 

[I was luckier than Binford, I think. Alison Wylie was one of my teachers (as I’ve said before). She it was who pointed out the greatest shortcomings of the radical critique–their internally inconsistent stance that theirs is the one and only account of knowledge–and I’ve been able to live since that time without the fear of an interpretative ‘anything goes’ anthropological stance overshadowing what my realist philosophy of science tells me I can and cannot do to further our knowledge of archaeological past.]

American Antiquity 28:217-225 (1962)

 I remember reading Lewis R. Binford’s ‘Archaeology as Anthropology’ as an undergraduate, and finding it difficult to understand the first time around. As I’ve since learned (and as faithful SA readers will remember) he was a famously awful writer, and my inability to grasp what he was saying probably had as much to do with his prose as it did with his propositions.  
     Today’s generation of archaeologists, if they’ve had only a glancing encounter with Binford’s thoughts, will find this article rife with arcane terminology borrowed mostly from Leslie White, but also from Julian Steward. These two had been informed as much by evolutionary theory as by Marx’s materialist philosophy, and without exhibiting any of Marx’s politics (which would have been fatal in the 1950s climate of red-baiting and black-listing), they nevertheless incorporated Marxian social and material frameworks in their anthropological schemae.
     Binford was evidently enthralled by the evolutionary view of human culture, and made a crucial contribution by, in effect, willing the discipline to pay attention to a given culture’s diachronic transformations as a means of gaining insight into humanity as a whole. Part of his programme, as you will see in this paper, was to bring the artifact out of its museum case and marry it to all of its associated archaeological traces in an effort to–essentially–give it meaning in the context of the culture. [He might not have agreed, and you may not, but I think underneath it all he was hungry to give objects meaning.]
     So, the reader will encounter the words technomic, sociotechnic, and ideotechnic in this article. These constructs, I think, helped Binford make sense of what early theorists, like Walter Taylor, and later ones, like Ian Hodder, would call the ‘context’ of an object–its meaning within the cultural milieu.
     For me the most useful and insightful contribution that Binford makes in this paper is in the proposition [to use one of his favorite phrases] that objects can and do change meaning over time, making their interpretation all that much more enlightening and at the same time crucial to the archaeological enterprise. In pointing this out for the Old Copper complex, he also [I think] creates a paradigm for recognizing and interpreting similar changes in other places and times. 
     Archaeologists of the  Late Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages in Europe will recognize the cultural transformation of utilitarian objects into symbols of status because that’s exactly what happened in their archaeological neck-o-the-woods. For those of you not familiar with those times and places, have a look some time at the exquisite pictorial volume Symbols of Power at the Time of Stonehenge, the cover of which is reproduced below.

As the entire contents of this book reveal, the time of Stonehenge was a time when an axe was no longer just an axe, nor an archer’s kit just a mundane component of the life and times of the archer. You get a glimpse of the power with which an everyday construct–like ‘axe’–can be imbued with such symbolic power in the beautifully shaped stone artifacts in the cover photo. It’s easy to imagine that these articles may never have seen the trunk of a tree or the head of a foe.
     So, read this classic by Binford as a way of gaining entry into the meaningfully constituted worlds of the past. Then sleep on it for about 30 years, as I have, and you’ll come to regard ‘Archaeology as Anthropology’ as a small step for the man, Lewis R. Binford, but a giant leap for archaeology and anthropology.
     Thanks for dropping by today. See you next time.

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