Archaeologist Binford dug beyond artefacts

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Lewis Binford led the “new archaeology” movement that sought to reorient the discipline from describing artifacts to describing prehistoric ways of life. 

Within archaeology, Mr. Binford was known as a contentious advocate for his ideas [Credit: SMU]

Mr. Binford, who died Monday at age 79, helped cast new light on the past by studying the living and applying his findings to the remains of prehistoric societies. 

“One needs to know something about what the world is like before trying to explain what one imagines it to be like,” he wrote in 2002. 

While an assistant professor at the University of Chicago in 1962, Mr. Binford wrote an article, “Archaeology as Anthropology” challenging archaeologists to study cultural dynamics and change instead of concentrating on catalogs of artifacts. 

“Lewis Binford led the charge that pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled archaeology into becoming a more scientific enterprise,” said David Meltzer, professor of prehistory at Southern Methodist University. “Much of how we conceptualize and carry out archaeology in the 21st century is owed to Lew’s substantial legacy.” 

Raised in Virginia, Mr. Binford served in the Army and learned to speak Japanese in Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters at the end of the Korean War. He said he first became interested in anthropology while acting as translator for a group of U.S. social scientists helping resettlement efforts in Japan. 

Mr. Binford studied archaeology at the University of Michigan, and did excavations in the south of France. There he became an expert on Mousterian archaeology, named for a style of flint tools usually associated with Neanderthals. 

In 1968, together with his fellow archaeologist and then-wife, Sally Binford, he published “New Perspectives in Archaeology.” The book was one of the founding texts of the new archaeology. 

The marriage was the third for Mr. Binford; he went on to marry three more times. 

He later did fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Australia and northwest Alaska, where Eskimos taught him to butcher caribou according to their traditions. 

By comparing the debris left by the butchering to that left when wolf packs kill caribou, Mr. Binford provided a new model for understanding assemblages of bones, one of many common archaeological problems he cast new light on. He published the results in his influential 1978 book “Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology.” 

He also studied the emergence of agriculture, a classic problem for researchers examining why people stopped being hunter-gatherers. 

Mr. Binford’s later years were spent constructing a database encompassing cultural and environmental data on more than 300 traditional cultures to be used in understanding how societies evolve in response to things like population pressure and climate change. 

Within archaeology, Mr. Binford was known as a contentious advocate for his ideas. 

“One of his students at UCLA in the 1960s described him as recruiting troops for the battle,” said his wife, Amber Johnson. 

Mr. Binford held tenured positions at the University of New Mexico and at SMU. 

“He was described as a Gatling gun of ideas,” said James Brooks, provost emeritus at SMU. “That doesn’t mean he didn’t step on a few toes.” 

Author: Stephen Miller | Source: The Wall Street Journal [April 15, 2011]

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