Posted April 12, 2011
LESSONS LEARNED FROM LEWIS BINFORD
I’ve just learned that Lewis Binford, the great American archaeologist, is dead. He died yesterday, but I only learned of his death today on Facebook. Lewis Binford is not the reason I became an archaeologist. I had made that decision long before I first sat in Binfords Strategy of Archaeology class at the University of New Mexico. He is, however, the reason I became the archaeologist I am today.
The most important things I learned from Lewis Binford may not have been the things he most wanted to teach me, but I think good teachers understand that some of their best lessons may not always be the ones they intended to convey. Lewis Binford taught me that archaeology mattered. It wasnt just a self-indulgent pastime; it actually had an important role to play in helping us to understand the human condition and how it came to be what it is. He taught me that archaeology can and should be a science; and science provided the best set of methods so far conceived for gaining reliable knowledge about the world. He taught me that archaeology was hard work. Its not easy to make sense of the detritus of human behavior in terms of the unobservable behaviors that produced that detritus. And because archaeology mattered so much, it was important not to rely simply on common sense or seemingly self-evident conclusions, which can so easily lead us to where we think we want to be, but are, in the end, untrustworthy guides. Finally, Lewis Binford offered an exhilarating vision of what archaeology could be. It wasnt just about stone tools, pottery sherds and subsistence technology. It had the potential to reveal nearly as rich a record of the human past as could be imagined. Thats why it was so important!
He wrote the following passage, which inspired me when I first read it and I dont think a day of my professional life has gone by when these words have not been my touchstone for why I do what it is I do: “The practical limitations on our knowledge of the past are not inherent in the nature of the archaeological record; the limitations lie in our methodological naivetÃ©, in our lack of development for principles determining the relevance of archaeological remains to propositions regarding processes and events of the past.” That means that even though most kinds of artifacts rot in the soil after only a few decades and many archaeological sites are destroyed every year due to natural erosion, land development and looting, we can nevertheless know just about anything about the past if we work hard enough to figure out how the tattered remnants of ancient lives we find in our explorations connect with whatever other aspect of culture we care to investigate. That statement has been criticized, justifiably, for being outrageously overly optimistic. So what?! Isn’t it better to start with the presumption that you have the potential to answer any question than to neglect to ask a question simply because you imagine it cant be answered?
Thank you, Dr. Binford, for your optimistic vision of a past that need not exceed our grasp!