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.

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Finally! Some Time Off!

I’m officially on vacation for a week. Other than a couple of days at Sea World, San Antonio at the end of the week (if I can get a dog sitter), I’m not planning on an out of town trip. I’ll probably take the kid to a couple of local museums, sites, and hiking since its her spring vacation. I’ll try to get a few photos if I go to the Kimble… I’ve been meaning to do a post about artifacts and the ethics of museum acquisitions and the Kimble has some pre-Columbian artifacts on display that might make a good jumping off point.

I’ve also recently purchased a Nokia N800 internet tablet which I love! I won’t go into a lot of details about it here, since I decided to blog about it at Hot Cup of Joe Tablet! I know what you’re thinking: “Carl, you haven’t even blogged here in a coon’s age, so why are starting a new blog?” The answer is simple: I really don’t know. The motivation to write comes and goes in spurts with me and I think a new spurt is coming (jeez, did I really just type that?).

Anyway, I’ve a few posts I’m working on here already and I’m going to be hosting the Four Stone Hearth soon (so send me your entries either through the submit link on the FSH page or to cfeagans AT gmail DOT com, FSH in the subject line). I’m either going to use a Doctor Who theme or a Pulp Sci Fi theme for this installment. If you want to vote on the theme, leave a comment here.

In the mean time, Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock (a *must* read blog if you haven’t checked him out) has asked a couple of us anthropologist bloggers to read and comment on a PLoS One article on the Peopling of the Americas which he’s linked to in this post. I gave it a once over and will be reading it closer in the next day or so. Hopefully I’ll have a useful comment to add. I was aware of the article previously, but hadn’t the chance to really read it.

So what say ye? Doctor Who? or Pulp Sci Fi?

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.

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.

Open Lab 2007!

Corturnix has announced the winning entries in this year’s Open Laboratory here. I had a couple entries submitted but didn’t make the cut, but if you look at the posts that did, you’ll see why: the winning entries are the top in their fields. I’ve read quite a few of them already, my favs so far are, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Afarensis; and An illustrated history of trepanation by Neurophilosophy (which also happen to be two of my favorite blogs).

Corturnix had nearly 500 entries and only a tenth of them made the cut. I looked over many of the entries that hadn’t and I must say I don’t envy the position of those that chose! There were so many good blogs to choose from.

Now, we just need to wait for Bora to turn it all into a book. I wonder what this year’s cover art will look like…?

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!

Word Press Move Update

Thanks to Alun Salt, who graciously pointed out that WP has an import posts feature that allows me to import posts and comments from blogger, I’ve done just that. I completely overlooked the import features of WP, which apparently has an export feature as well.

The whole process took all of 10 minutes from the time I looked at Alun’s comment to the point at which I’m able to write this post. Apparently it uses the RSS feeds to do the importing. Pictures hosted by Blogger will not be in the posts, but as I come across any that were critical to the original post, I’ll add them back. Now that I’ve imported everything, I’m debating on whether or not to simultaneously post on each blog for a while… hmm…

Anyway, if anyone has additional suggestions on what I can do to update/improve the new digs, leave me a comment!

The Move to WordPress

I’m going to gradually make the move to WordPress.

I had an issue with Blogspot/Blogger recently that has gone unresolved and no longer feel this to be the best platform for me to carry on with a blogspot.com address. In case you’re wondering, the issue has nothing to do with this blog, but, rather, another blog that I have, which is anonymous. Blogger’s internal software mis-identified it as a spam blog and I’ve been trying to get it restored for over a week now. No luck

So, my plan is this. For a while, I’ll post both at WordPress and Blogger. I’ll migrate a few of my Blogger posts here over the next week or so and when I create a new post, I’ll post both at WordPress and Blogger.

I’ve found a few features with WordPress that I like, such as the easy method of creating posts. If I copy/paste a word document with links, WordPress handles it very well -much better than Blogger. I can also create “pages” that are very flexible in content and presentation. They could be used for a bibliography, list of links, discussion of an entire issue, collection of posts in a single category, etc.

And, speaking of categories, I like how WordPress handles categories and tags and makes searching via these simple. You can even surf WP blogs via categories or tags. Adding blogs to the blogroll is simple as well.

That’s it in a nutshell. I’m making the switch. It’ll take some time, but in the end, perhaps I’ll be more motivated to post and be more active with the tools and features WordPress provides.