A Classic Paper: Archaeology as Anthropology

This is an entry submitted for The Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival, the “Classic Papers” category.

Binford, Lewis R. (1962) Archaeology as Anthropology American Antiquity, 28 (2), pp. 217-225

Lewis Binford is considered by many to be one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th century. During his teaching stint at the University of Chicago (1961 to 1965), this paper was published in the journal American Antiquity and helped Binford establish a paradigm that is still used today which is that there is a necessary relationship between anthropology and archaeology. Today, archaeologists refer to this as “processual archaeology” and there are many professors that still teach the “Binfordian” school of thought when approaching archaeological questions. One of Binford’s concerns was always to approach archaeological questions with a scientific perspective.

This paper begins Binford’s passion for arguing a processual method of archaeological research which includes logical positivism and the hypothetico-deductive model, scientific methods that rely on falsification, observation and hypothesis testing. While others before Binford, notably Gordon Willey and Phillip Phillips in 1958, argued that American archaeology is anthropology, Binford takes the idea to task in “Archaeology as Anthropology.”

Binford held that it was one thing to explicate the material record but another thing altogether to explain the material record in detail. For instance, it might be obvious when looking at an archaeological site to observe that at a given period in time a given culture migrated. But to explain the whys and hows of that migration, it requires a more holistic approach to analyzing the artifacts within the site. Indeed, it may require comparing and contrasting with artifacts from other periods or other sites of similar environmental and socio-demographic pressures. From these, Binford asserted, archaeologists can formulate and test hypotheses and make predictions.

For Binford, “undifferentiated” and “unstructured” views of artifacts within the material record were “inadequate” and he called for a “systematic and understandable picture of the total extinct cultural system.” One that incorporates strict scientific methodologies to provide useful data to the explanations of cultural evolution. And he was dead set against merely equating material culture with technology.

Binford proposed three major classes of artifacts and a “category of formal stylistic attributes.” Adapted directly from “Archaeology as Anthropology,” they are:

  1. Technomic artifacts – their primary functional contexts are in coping directly with the environment. Examples are hand axes, adzes, projectile points, fishhooks, etc.
  2. Socio-technic artifacts – material elements having their primary functional context in the social sub-systems of the total cultural system. Examples include a king’s crown, a warrior’s coup stick, etc.
  3. Ideo-technic artifacts – items which signify or symbolize the ideological rationalizations for the social system. Examples would be figures of deities, clan symbols, symbols of natural agencies, etc.
  • Stylistic, formal attributes – qualities that cross-cut the three major classes of artifacts, which serve to provide a sense of “style” and to promote group solidarity and a basis for group awareness and identity. An example of this would be Greek red or black figure motifs, which occur on ceramic vessels with varied functional contexts.

One of the things that makes this such a seminal paper is that Binford not only establishes his assertions and what he believes the future of archaeology should become, but he details why. More than this, he provides a working example of his proposed methods at work by using the Old Copper Complex of the Western Great Lakes as an example.

The Old Copper Complex can be dated as far back as 6000 BCE and, while they initially created copper tools, later assemblages (toward 3000 BCE) reflected a return to stone and bone, with copper being used primarily for symbolic and ornamental functions. This has been cited as a case of “cultural devolution” since it seems counter-intuitive to abandon the superior material of copper as a technology for tools only to return to stone and bone.

However, Binford quite gracefully demonstrates an explanation that goes beyond merely explicating the obvious. He drew upon what was already established as understood by anthropologists about egalitarian societies and their transformations as populations increase, creating more competition for status. He works out for the reader how it is neither efficient nor an economic expenditure of energy to create copper tools without recycling the material. He shows how the culture doesn’t recycle or rework copper tools since so many are found in disrepair in the archaeological record and none appear to be reworked. Moreover, copper goods are almost always found as part of burial goods.

If, Binford asserts, durability were a factor, then some mechanism should have found its way into the society to retain the copper tools rather than dispose of them with the dead. Since this isn’t the case, the conclusion is that they were not considered more durable when compared with stone and bone.

Binford spends several pages on the explanation, which I won’t do. To summarize, he posits that egalitarian societies cherish the achievement of the individual, which allows the individual to gain status among the group. Technomic items of exotic material, painstaking created, and elaborately decorated were considered symbolic of achievement. These status symbols would be personalities and thus subject to disposal at the death of their owners, hence the artifacts found in burial sites.

As populations continued to increase, according to Binford, so did the selective pressures that give individuals a need to communicate status. Differential roles within society emerged, giving rise to the appearance of a new class of socio-technic items, formerly the technomic items. Stone and bone again find their utility and copper is relegated to non-utilitarian functions, such as jewelry.

Lewis Binford’s philosophy of archaeology lives on in the students of his methods. “Binfordian” is a term that most American students of archaeology in colleges and top online schools have probably encountered. Many are very likely to consider themselves to be of the “Binfordian” mold. In other, later, publications, Binford went on to refine and perfect his perspective of processual archaeology, but it’s my opinion that “Archaeology as Anthropology” was the seminal paper that first showed the glimpse of things to come. Reading it today, Binford’s wisdom and the clarity of his words ring clear. There is an objective and knowable past that can be explained if the right methodology is employed. I’ll close this post with the last half of Lewis Binford’s concluding paragraph:

As archaeologists, with the entire span of culture history as our “laboratory,” we cannot afford to keep our theoretical heads buried in the sand. We must shoulder our full share of responsibility within anthropology. Such a change could go far in advancing the filed of archeology specifically, and would certainly advance the general field of anthropology.

The Four Stone Hearth #35, The Giants Are Real edition

Find it here at Archaeoporn! He was good enough to slip me in at the last minute. Next up is Afarensis on March 12th and I get the honors after that on March 26th.

Recent News In Mesoamerican Archaeology

The King Has Left The Building

Apparently Maya elites and royalty weren’t the only ones building temples and pyramids. And the mystery of the blue pigment used in Maya pottery and murals has been solved.

Mayanists, archaeologists that specialize in the study of Maya culture in Mesoamerica, have long believed that temples were built by and for royalty. And, at first glance, this assumption would seem intuitive. Monumental architecture is a costly undertaking in both resources and manpower. The people used to erect monumental architecture such as the pyramid temples of sites in Belize and Guatemala wouldn’t have been available, for instance, for farming. They would have been dedicated to moving rock, earth, gravel, and lumber used for fuel in the hot fires needed to create lime for plaster.

What archaeologist Lisa Lucero, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began to wonder is what would royals at Yalbac need with six temples. What Lucero noted over the last five years of working the Yalbac site in central Belize is that there are a variety of construction techniques and materials used in the temples there and, by examining the fill, mortar and other features, she’s willing to suggest that several groups may have created temples: royals, nobles, priests, and even commoners.

The broader implication is that a kind of religious freedom may have existed among the Maya in which they were able to worship different gods. Says Lucero, “the Maya could choose which temples to worship in and support; they had a voice in who succeeded politically.”

Lucero’s paper on the subject is published in the most recent issue of Latin American Antiquity with the title, “Classic Maya Temples, Politics, and the Voice of the People.” I’m eager to read it once I finally make over to the university library (UTA doesn’t carry the current version in electronic format) to see just how it is she’s able to infer non-Royal involvement in construction through fill and mortar.

Don’t Step On Maya Blue Suede Shoes

At the bottom of the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá is a 14 foot layer of Maya Blue, a nearly indestructible pigment that is found on Maya pottery, murals, rubber artifacts, wood, copal incense, etc. So named because of its color and origin, the pigment has long been a marvel and a mystery to Mayanists. It resists corrosion, biodegredation, weathering, and solvents and can withstand the test of time with an uncanny vividness. This stable pigment results from a chemical bond between indigo and palygorskite, a type of clay.

What Mayanists couldn’t figure out is how, precisely the Maya created the pigment and why so much of it resided in a 14 foot layer at the bottom of the cenote. To bond the indigo and palygorskite, the two substances need to be heated. As it turns out, the Maya burned a mixture of copal incense, palygorskite and parts of the indigo plant, creating the blue pigment. Sacrifices, ranging from pottery to people, were then painted blue and tossed in the cenote.

But how do we know that sacrifices were painted blue? And why paint them blue to begin with?

Scenes on pottery and murals depict the sacrifices as blue in color, whether they be objects or people. The sacrifices were painted before being plunged into the waters of the cenote or being put on the altar for the removal of a still-beating heart. The components of Maya Blue, the indigo plant, the clay, and the copal incense, were each important items of medicinal importance to the Maya:

… what we have here are three healing elements that were combined with fire during the ritual at the edge of the Sacred Cenote. The result created Maya Blue, symbolic of the healing power of water in an agricultural community.”

Rain was critical to the ancient Maya of northern Yucatan. From January through mid-May there is little rain – so little that the dry season could be described as a seasonal drought. “The offering of three healing elements thus fed Chaak and symbolically brought him into the ritual in the form a bright blue color that hopefully would bring rainfall and allow the corn to grow again,”

And how did the pigment arrive at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote to form a 14 foot layer of Maya Blue?

While it’s one of the most durable pigments known, it still has a tendency to wash off the items it’s painted on. Hundreds of blue-painted people and countless items of pottery and other artifacts sacrificed to gods like Chaak over the centuries of Maya influence at Chichén Itzá allowed for a precipitate of the pigment to fall off the sacrifices and collect at the bottom.

You’ll be able to read more about the Maya Blue research in the next issue of the Journal Antiquity where the researchers have a paper about to be published.

For me, insights into the beliefs and motivations of ancient peoples is the payoff for research conducted by Lisa Lucero in the first news item above and the anthropologists at Wheaton College and The Field Museum in the second item. My research interests lie in ancient beliefs, cult practices, rituals, and religion and what motivated people of antiquity to adhere to these beliefs and practices. But the Maya Blue research also highlights the importance of continuing to conduct research on museum collections, particularly as new techniques and insights are developed and applied to these items. In this case, The Field Museum was able to analyze a three-footed pottery bowl recovered from the Sacred Cenote in 1904 and kept in the museum since 1934. With a scanning electron microscope, the researchers were able to identify signatures for palygorskite and indigo in the bowl. Further analysis might reveal which parts of the indigo plant were specifically used, although leaves are the most likely.

Further Reading:

Royals weren’t only builders of Maya temples, archaeologist finds
Archaeologists let looters do some of the work
Centuries-old Maya Blue mystery finally solved

Current Events in Blogging

First, welcome back to the fray, Chris! Northstate Science has been somewhat silent the past few weeks but Christopher O’Brien is back and he made the move to WordPress! Looks like I’m not alone in that move! I’ve updated his link in my Blogroll and be sure to visit -his blog is one of those “don’t miss” blogs on the topic of archaeology.

Next, the Four Stone Hearth’s 34th edition is up at Our Cultural  World. This is the first time being hosted at this blog and blogger bedeboop has done a fine job presenting it. As is usual of late, I’m behind the curve in getting a post ready. New job position, new hours, etc…. I won’t bore with the details, but I’m getting it sorted.

Four Stone Hearth #30

Please take the time to visit the 30th edition of the Four Stone Hearth, a bi-weekly blog carnival on anthropology. You can find this latest edition at The Greenbelt!

Carnival Time!

The 27th edition of the Four Stone Hearth is up at Sorting Out Science. Sam Wise has done a great job presenting some of the best in anthropological blogging in the last week or two.

I’ll be hosting this carnival here in a fortnight, so if you have posts you’d like to suggest from your own blog or others, email them to me at cfeagans -AT- gmail -DOT- com.

In the meantime, visit Sam and check out the other anthro blogs linked in the FSH this week.

If you’re interested in hosting a Four Stone Hearth blog carnival on your blog, send an email to Martin Rundkvist through host@fourstonehearth.net. Submissions for upcoming FSH’s can be sent to submit@fourstonehearth.net and they’ll be redirected to the host.

Cavemen Liked Big Butts and They Cannot Lie

Acouple of online editions of U.K. newspapers reported the recent finds of 30 carvings recovered at an archaeological site in Poland, dating to about 15,000 years ago. Most anthropologists and archaeologists would probably be immediately familiar with the Venus Figurine motif, but the recent media report was been picked up by a few blogs, each appealing to the title gag.

(Note: This post originally appeared on Anthropology.net in March 2007 and I was considering a follow up post linking to it, but couldn’t find it in the archives. I think a few posts were lost Kambiz’s server move. I’m reposting it here and using it for my Four Stone Hearth entry this fortnight with more (hopefully) on the Venus Figure motif in the future.)

Venus Figurines of the Paleolithic and Their Caricatured Features

Admittedly, the gag is funny, but looking deeper at the Venus Figurines reveals an interesting and fascinating motif and one that, amazingly enough, spans large geographic and chronological ranges. The distinctive motif has been found from Spain and France to Russia and back down to Anatolia and Mesopotamia (Turkey and Iran/Iraq). They date to as far back as 24,000 years and as recent as the Bronze Age, perhaps about 5,000 years ago.

Venus of Willendorf
The motif itself includes several prominent and relatively consistent features. In almost all cases the figure is obese, often very obese. Voluptuous breasts and thighs, and an overall curvaceous appearance are features present almost without fail. Other frequently occurring characteristics include the presence of unusually small arms and legs, prominent buttocks, the lack of feet, and obvious vaginal features like a pronounced vulva. Regional features are also notable: the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps the most recognizable Venus Figurine, appears to be wearing a hat or headdress. The goddess figurines of Çatalhöyük are depicted seated in a throne flanked by felines with her hands resting on their heads. She’s also presented as giving birth and James Mellart, who excavated Çatalhöyük in the 1950s, interpreted the shrine where such a figurine was discovered to be a birthing place. A goddess seated between two felines was also found in a Çatalhöyük granary, suggesting that fertility may, indeed, be a theme there.

But did cavemen prefer big butts? The recent media reports about the Polish Venus carvings note that historians attribute this reverence for curves and voluptuousness as attributes that were considered to be ideal for prehistoric societies since they implied wealth and healthy diet.

They also suggested she would be a successful mother, able to produce lots of children and sent out a message to other men that her partner was a strong and successful hunter – making him more attractive to other women.

But this is the Venus Figurine simplified. The fact is, any speculation on what the figurines really meant is, well, speculation. It’s a fact that they span many societies and still have a relatively common appearance. It’s a fact that they greatly out-number male figurines. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines accurately represented what a fat woman looks like, so there must have been fat women from whom the craftsman / artist derived inspiration. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines included details like vulva. And it’s a fact that some features were prominent (breasts, stomachs, buttocks, vulva) and detailed while others were not (feet, arms, face). It’s a fact that red ochre has been found in association with some of the figurines.

When these facts are considered, it becomes clear that the artist spent some time on the details that he wanted to be noticed and diminished the details that were insignificant. The Venus of Willendorf, for instance had a hat: a very detailed and complex representation of a woven textile that must have involved much of the artist’s time. Seven concentric rows that circle a rosette comprise the headgear and dimples, folds and rolls of adipose were carefully crafted. Yet, the artist omitted a face and feet. Could this mean she’s an anonymous representation of the “perfect” woman for the sophisticated hunter-gatherer? Or could it have been a way of representing a generic mother goddess? The pronounced vulva and red ochre that the Willendorf figure was painted in may have, together, been reminiscent of menstruation and thus fertility. Certainly a prehistoric woman with large stores of fat would be better equipped to nourish children and a caricatured, obese representation might have been used to refer to the mother goddess who nourishes all life. Her lack of feet (they weren’t broken off –they were never added) may have been intentional, affording the goddess figurine no way to depart from her assigned station (a birthing shrine or granary); or, maybe, the artist simply wasn’t good at feet and didn’t find them important. Without feet, the figurine couldn’t have been stood up nor would it sit or lie in any manner that appeared natural or intended. But it could be held and the person holding it would feel the curves and the shape of the figure.

Originally, the Venus Figurine was named “Venus” as a joke. A pejorative meant to demean the “uncivilized” and “primitive” opinion of beauty that the “caveman” obviously had. The irony isn’t lost, however, if the figurine motif is, indeed, a goddess. Venus was, of course, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, an analog of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and consistently depicted in the nude. The Roman/Greek version, however, is more in line with the modern (or, at least, Western) idea of beautiful, sensual, and sexually attractive with her thin form and ample, but not pendulous, breasts. Nor was her pubic region depicted as more than a mere space, absent of vulva, vaginal lips, and the details present in her more ancient predecessor.

There is much more that can be written on the Venus Figurine, so perhaps I’ll revisit this subject again in the future. But I’ll close with the following thought: the most convincing evidence to me that the Venus of Willendorf (and, therefore, probably most of the Venus figurines) was a goddess and not a representation of an actual person is the hat and lack of face. Traditionally, representations of elites (kings, queens, nobility, and gods) include headgear. That the face was omitted might signify that there was more anonymity involved than a female ruler, shaman, oracle, or other elite. Certainly the reverence for feminine attributes might indicate matriarchal societies existed, or at least a much less patriarchal one than more recent human cultures are guilty of.

Further Reading:

Evans, Martin (2007). Why cavemen liked curvy cavewomen … like Kylie. Daily Express, Tuesday, March 13, 2007. http://www.express.co.uk/news_detail.html?sku=1356

Soffer, Olga; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000). The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, Current Anthropology 41, pp. 511-537.