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The Real Indiana Jones(es): Lewis Binford

The “New” Archeologist

21 November 1931-11 April 2011

Lewis Binford is proof positive that you don’t have to find an amazing archaeological site or artifact to change the face of archaeology. In 1962, while at the University of Chicago, Binford began the movement that became known as Processual Archaeology by publishing an article in American Antiquity entitled “Archaeology as Anthropology” (Gamble 2011). That is not to say that processual archaeology was a solid paradigm for as Johnson (2010:23) noted:

The New Archaeology must be understood as a movement or mood of dissatisfaction rather than as a specific set of beliefs.

A hallmark of the Binfordian and Processual approach was that it was general, in that his theories could be applied to a variety or regions around the world. For instance, instead of looking at the origins of farming in the Near East he looked at explanations that would explain patterns worldwide, such as climatic fluctuations at the end of the last Ice Age (Renfrew and Bahn 2000). The bottom line of the Processual approach was that archaeology was meant to

explicate and explain the total range of physical and cultural similarities and differences characteristic of the entire spatio-temporal span of man’s existence (Binford 1962: 217)

Binford is also credited with starting the field of ethnoarchaeology. He undertook ethnographic fieldwork with the Nunamiat of Alaska to better understand how hunter-gatherers impact the archaeological record. He used this fieldwork to aid in his interpretation of Middle Paleolithic lithic technologies in Europe.

In addition to influencing the field through his scholarship, Binford molded a whole generation of scholars while teaching at the University of Chicago. Many of his students, such as Kent Flannery, went on to become prominent members of the field.

 

Sources:

Binford, Lewis. 1962. “Archaeology as Anthropology” . American Antiquity 28 (2): 217-225.

Gamble, Clive. 2011. Lewis Binford Obituary. The Guardian.

Johnson, Matthew. 2010. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.

Renfrew and Bahn. 2000. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods and Practice. Thames and Hudson.

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