Anthropology Community Mourns Loss of Father of Modern Archaeology

The archaeological world is still reeling from the recent loss of the eminent American archaeologist, Lewis R. Binford. The highly influential anthropologist was born in 1931 and leaves behind a legacy few can match in terms of breadth of work.

The larger-than-life man many consider to be the “Father of Modern Archaeology” began his academic pursuits in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. Binford graduated from Maury High School (also my father’s alma mater) in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk before attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute. After a stint in the military, he returned to school at the University of North Carolina in 1954 to pursue his new-found interest in anthropology.  

Soon after attaining his B.A. at UNC, Binford moved to Ann Arbor to undertake his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. It was here that Lewis Binford found his niche and blossomed as an archaeologist. Under the direction of Leslie White, Binford was free from the shackles of the outdated culture-history view of archaeology he associated with UNC.  

Lewis Binford further developed his ideas of what archaeology should and shouldn’t be at the University of Chicago as an assistant professor. It was here, in 1962, that Binford published his first major article, Archaeology as Anthropology. The paper argued for the anthropologification of the field of archaeology. He claimed that by connecting artifacts to human behavior we could get a much better understanding of the associated culture than by simply collecting and cataloging. This call to arms for archaeologists set off a ripple effect which gathered momentum quickly. The movement’s followers were dubbed the “New Archaeologists” by outsiders.

Binford spent the late 1960’s shuffling around Anthropology departments: from Chicago, to UC Santa Barbara, to UCLA, before ending up at the University of New Mexico in 1969. It was during this time that Binford pioneered the methods of ethnoarchaeology. This approach involves the ethnographic study of modern-day hunter-gatherers to form assumptions about prehistoric H-G behaviors which may have shaped material remains. Binford lived among the Nunamiut of Alaska to get an idea of how Middle Paleolithic peoples may have shaped (and were shaped by) their environment.  

Much of Binford’s body of work was produced in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. He produced dozens of publications during these decades and cemented his position as the preeminent American archaeologist. Binford took on his opponents and critics with lively debates, most notably the post-processualists.  

In 1991 Binford began teaching as a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and continued to serve as the pater familias of American archaeology until his retirement.  

Binford was a paradigm shifter; a pioneer in the realms of processual archaeology and ethnoarchaeology. His emphasis on utilizing the scientific method and “striking a balance between theoretical and practical concerns” helped the field of archaeology become what it is today. Lewis Binford leaves behind a pair of shoes too large to fill.

[This article was originally posted on Examiner.com]

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