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.


Stolen and Looted: an interesting article

This is part of my on-going “Stolen and Looted” series in which I examine cultural resource management practices, looting of archaeological sites, and out-right theft of artifacts.

In an online newspaper called The Spectrum, which is the online version of a Southern Utah printed paper, there was an article by Byron Loosle titled Archaeological Artifacts: Grandfather Clause or Illegal Action? In this article, Loosle summarizes very well the problem with looting artifacts from public lands and archaeological sites in general. While it’s legal in the United States to remove artifacts from private lands (assuming one has the landowner’s permission), it is actually a crime to pick up even projectile points (a.k.a. arrowheads) from the surface when on public lands like National Parks.

Loosle makes a couple of quick points an analogies that I think are effective:

the impact of any type of collecting can be crippling to science and research efforts. In order to piece together the big picture and gain a firm understanding of the history of prehistoric cultures, scientists rely not only on studying the artifacts themselves, but the locations in which they lie.

A high percentage of sites in the Great Basin, for example, are the result of transient hunting and gathering activities that occurred over about 10,000 years. Many of these transient hunting sites are small and represent only temporary use. Even the larger sites usually show only surface or very shallow deposits. These variables make extracting information from sites very difficult.

Like clothes and hairstyles, arrowhead styles changed through time. Scientists rely on these markers to date a site. The type of stone used for the point can help us understand where people had traveled, and artifact placement shows where activities occurred in the past. Just one visit from an enthusiastic collector can virtually destroy the information potential of a small site, just as repeated visits to more substantial sites leaves devastating results.

Actually, that’s a relatively large portion of the article, which is very short, but these types of internet articles seem to disappear after a few months or even weeks and Loosle’s words are worth repeating. I hope he doesn’t mind my liberal interpretation of “fair use” with this quote.

In spite of the lucidity and clarity of Loosle’s remarks, there was a single comment at the time I wrote this by someone upset that “BLM people” would expect him to just leave an arrowhead on the ground where he sees it. The commenter makes several ignorant remarks about proving he didn’t make it himself or that he found it on public lands, etc., missing completely Loosle’s main points.

Interestingly enough, I empathize -as I’m sure most archaeologists and cultural resource managers do- with the commenter’s motivation to pick up and keep an “arrowhead.” But Loosle wasn’t speaking to the casual hiker that spots a projectile point on the surface along a trail. Indeed, he notes that “approximately 90 percent of the Anasazi structural sites in Washington County have been damaged by illicit digging, with percentages just as high for sites compromised by surface collection activities in Beaver and Iron counties.”

These damages aren’t done by people walking along and spotting arrowheads. These are people who are actively digging and looking for artifacts with an intent to remove cultural resources from lands shared by us all. These people are thieves and they’re stealing from me, you and even the commentor to Loosle’s article. They’re making a profit at the expense of us ever gaining contextual knowledge which could help create a more complete understanding of our cutural heritages.

An Abnormal Interest in Gilgamesh

I’ve written about Gilgamesh and ancient Mesopotamia several times in the past, but my articles and posts are nothing near the original work that Duane is doing at Abnormal Interests in translating ancient texts.

I’m a frequent reader of his blog (but one of the worst, I’m afraid, since I rarely post comments) and I highly recommend reading his work if you have even a passing interest in the translations of ancient texts.

His latest post is a translation of The Letter of Gilgamesh. In the letter, Gilgamesh, the King of of Ur, citizen of Kullab, creation of Anu, Enlil and Ea, favorite of Shamash, and the beloved of Marduk, makes a “gentle” request ruler of another land: “send me a large portion of your wealth and come visit me. If I have to come to you, it won’t be pretty and I’ll not only take everything I want but pulverize your cities.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. Here’s a quote:

I[f ]on the fiftieth day of Teshrit, I do not meet you in the gate of my city Ur, (then) I swear by the great gods, whose oath can not to be revoked, (and) I swear by my gods, Lugalbanda, Sin, Shamash, Palil, Lugalgirra and Meslamtaea, (that) I will send (35) to you Zamana, and the divine lord of my person (‘head,’ my personal god?), the aggressor(?), whose name you honor. He will pulverize your cities. Your [palac]es he will pillage (and) your orchards he will [plunder(?)].

You gotta love Gilgamesh! He was two-thirds god and one-third human, so his threats weren’t to be taken lightly!

One of the things that I found so compelling about the Gilgamesh story is the love and friendship he had with Enkidu. Thousands of years have passed since the story was written, and yet the emotion of loss still comes through loud and clear in a tale written in a language long since dead, forgotten then deciphered and translated thousands of years later.

Gilgamesh was clearly pressuring this ruler, and probably other rulers in the region, to align with him. The demonstration of their alignments and their commitments was a substantial sacrifice of their national wealth, but what they received in return was the protective umbrella of his Empire.

The Serpent Mound

We really don’t know for sure what most ancient, pre-literate cultures used many of their monumental constructions for. We’re reasonably sure about things like the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of Greece, but these examples of architecture were constructed during periods in which there was writing, so their builders discussed the significance of monumental architecture in their life times.

But what of Stonehenge? Nabta Playa? The Nazca Lines in Peru? We can make some guesses -some very educated guesses- but we still cannot be as certain of the use and purpose of these sites as we can of those mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The same holds true for the Serpent Mound in Locus Grove, Ohio, which was constructed by local Native Americans at around 1000 CE. Nor do we truly know the purposes of other earthworks in the Ohio Valley -were they fortifications; were they mortuary; were they cult centers; or some combination of these? While not as old as many of the mounds built by the Hopewell and Adena cultures (1000 BCE to about 700 CE), the Serpent mound is, perhaps, one of the most famous and popular of the earthworks in the Ohio Valley -maybe even the United States.

Interpretations of the Serpent Mound

Modern inhabitants of the region first surveyed the Serpent Mound in 1846 and was initially recognized as a serpent that appeared to be swallowing or ejecting an egg from its mouth.

Several decades later, Francis Parry offered a new interpretation which was analogous to symbols found in Southwest Native American cultures. He suggested that the oval was a “Sun” sign and the coil at the tail the “wind” sign. The wavy body in the middle was interpreted by Parry to be the “aboriginal cloud form.”

And, just so we can all rest assured that the cloud of ignorance perpetrated by modern fundamentalist Christians is nothing new, let me mention another interpretation of the Serpent Mound. Reverend Landon West of Pleasant Hill, OH suggested that the mound represented man’s fall from grace in which “Satan beguiled and tempted Eve” to taste of the forbidden fruit. Clearly, Landon thought, this was created by the hand of God directly or, at least, through one of his nutters.

More recently, rational analysis has yielded to a more rational interpretation. By comparing the mound with the anatomy and striking habits of real snakes, researchers now see the oval portion at the head of the snake as its mouth and the triangular-shaped portion behind the head as the neck, which is
“puffed out” by inflation in certain species when agitated. Native American cultures were careful observers of nature, to the point that I would characterize them as “scientists” of a sort -they observed the habits and behaviors of animals and the universe, making predictions and assumptions that held true when hunting, or just determining the seasons. It’s very likely that the snake was a totem figure and venerated by the culture that built the mound in the same way it was venerated and respected by cultures around the world. If one is to create a mound to honor a snake, then the logical course of action is to show it in the position of action: striking!

Incidentally, the Serpent Mound is situated on a ridge that is on the edge of a massive crater, probably created about 300 million years ago when a small asteroid impacted the region. Its very doubtful that the Native Americans that constructed the mound had any clue of this, but it is interesting that the head and the tail both are situated near cliff-faces of the ridge (there’s an overlook at each end). Though completely unaware of the asteroid impact, the mound’s builders may have, indeed, been aware of other details of astronomical significance, namely the summer and winter solstices. This is consistent with the level of knowledge and technology of other mound-building societies of the world, suggesting a need to have an accurate method of tracking and celebrating the seasons for agricultural purposes.

Because of this, I rather liked the interpretations that include an egg being consumed or ejected by the snake, since most societies rightly view the egg as a symbol of fertility and fertility is necessary for agricultural societies.

I was at the Serpent Mound just a two weeks ago and I have to say that the nearest town, Locust Grove, is aptly named. There were thousands of cicadas, close cousin to the locust, in the trees buzzing in unison and, occasionally, dropping down on the heads of unassuming passersby. Here’s one such cicada. Colorful little buggers.

Big Flower that Looks at Sun God

Photo by Carl FeagansIt’s been held that the sunflower was originally domesticated in eastern North America then introduced to Mexico -the sunflower is a major seed crop in the world when it comes to obtaining oils. But recent evidence suggests very strongly that it may have been the other way around.

Shells of sunflower seeds (called achenes) were found in a dry cave in Mexico (Cueva del Gallo) which dated to about 300 BCE. Cueva del Gallo was used in antiquity as a ritual center -caves were thought to be the passages the sun used to travel the underworld from the west only to rise again from the east, so this may hold some significance that sunflower seeds were found. As David Lentz, of the University of Cincinnati, writes in his paper at PNAS, Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) as a pre-Columbian domesticate in Mexico, “the modern O tomi word for sunflower, dä nukhä, trans lates to “big flower that looks at the sun god.”’

The cave presented a dessicated environment that preserved the shells in “pristine condition,” but the Cueva del Gallo shells weren’t the oldest found. That prize goes to a water-logged site at San Andrés where accelorator mass spectrometry dates sunflower remains to older than 2600 BCE! This puts the sunflower in Mexico as a probable domesticated crop far earlier than was previously believed. It was thought that the Spaniards brought the crop and that it was originally cultivated in North America. Now, the questions arise: did cultivation of the sunflower begin in one place then get introduced to another through trade. Corn made its debute in North America via trade from Mesoamerica northward -perhaps the same happened with the sunflower.

If your university library has access to all of PNAS or if you’re willing to pay the fee (or already subscribe) you can get the full paper by Lentz, et al, at this link. If not, here’s the abstract, also available at the same link:

Mexico has long been recognized as one of the world’s cradles of domestication with evidence for squash (Cucurbita pepo) cultivation appearing as early as 8,000 cal B.C. followed by many other plants, such as maize (Zea mays), peppers (Capsicum annuum), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum). We present archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnohistoric data demonstrating that sunflower (Helianthus annuus) had entered the repertoire of Mexican domesticates by ca. 2600 cal B.C., that its cultivation was widespread in Mexico and extended as far south as El Salvador by the first millennium B.C., that it was well known to the Aztecs, and that it is still in use by traditional Mesoamerican cultures today. The sunflower’s association with indigenous solar religion and warfare in Mexico may have led to its suppression after the Spanish Conquest. The discovery of ancient sunflower in Mexico refines our knowledge of domesticated Mesoamerican plants and adds complexity to our understanding of cultural evolution.

Personally, I find research into early domestication of crops and animals to be fascinating. I’m convinced that much of early domestication is related to religious and cult activity, some of it perhaps even because of it. Sun gods, fertility godesses, and the deities that people in antiquity assigned to the natural world created an intricate system of beliefs and rituals as they sought to appease imagined gods in order to bring about favorable conditions for subsistance. Indeed, and according to Lentz, et al, demise of the sunflower until its reintroduction at a later date by the Spanish was probably due to the power it held as a symbol for ritual use in pagan religion. Spanish preists were notorious for obliterating native culture and religion as they sought to convert indigenous Mesoamericans to Catholism.

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

On the Lighter Side: Archaeology Today

Monty Python style!

Flaming Star!

The Story of One Man’s Search For Vengeance in the Raw and Violent World of International Archaeology