Saturday, April 16, 2011
Lewis Binford: Prof Changed Archaeology
By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
Archaeologist Lewis R. Binford, professor emeritus of Southern Methodist University and the University of New Mexico, who launched the "new archaeology" movement, died in Missouri this week, the Dallas university announced this week.
He was 79.
"Lewis Binford led the charge that changed that pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled archaeology into becoming a more scientific enterprise," David Meltzer, professor of prehistory at Southern Methodist University said in an announcement issued by the university. "The impact of his work was felt not only here in America, but around the world. Much of how we conceptualize and carry out archaeology in the 21st Century is owed to Lew's substantial legacy."
Binford initially gained notoriety in 1962 while an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, SMU said. "He wrote a path-breaking article in American Antiquity proposing that archaeologists abandon their emphasis on cataloguing artifacts and instead study what the artifacts revealed about prehistoric cultures. The proposition launched what is now known as 'New Archaeology,' " according to the school.
His research spanned the globe and much of it focused on hunting and gathering societies.
SMU stated that Binford spent years in remote Africa, Australia and Alaska researching contemporary hunter-gatherers and revived the practice of ethnoarchaeology, or the study of living societies to better understand the societies of the past.
A 1984 Journal story featuring Binford walked readers through the man's study "heavy with memories of his field work with hunting tribes and clans around the world." Noted were furred masks of the Alaskan Nunamiut Eskimos; a fighting shield and Mulga-wood throwing stick of aborigines in Australia; a leather dance rattle of Southern Africa; and dried pods that had held poison for the hunting arrows of a Kung Bushman.
"Most people believe one can learn more about the present by studying the past, but Binford's work with hunting tribes assumes that perhaps one can learn about the past by studying the present," the story reads. "Returning from an archaeological dig in southern France in early 1969, Binford realized, 'Although I had been arguing for changes in procedure, I in fact was still behaving like a traditional archaeologist — trying to get meaning out of the archaeological record directly. But no matter how many new facts I created, I didn't understand them with any more reliability than I did the earlier ones.' "
That summer, Binford traveled north of the Arctic Circle and lived among the Nunamiut and remained with them through the summer.
And for the next 12 years during breaks from teaching at UNM, he hunted with the Nunamiut, traveled the ancient homeland the Alyawara in Australia, and studied animal behavior and the hunting techniques of the Kung Bushman of Africa, the story states.
"If you have the idea I was trying to find some pristine culture from the past, you're wrong," Binford was quoted saying in the Journal story. "There aren't any such things. Never were in the past and aren't now. I was trying to learn the different ways hunters use their environment and why."
"Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets" was the most recent of the nearly 20 books Binford wrote. He also authored more than 130 articles, chapters in books and reviews.
Binford was born in Norfolk, Va. After high school he was educated at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and he served in the Army from 1952-54. He was an interpreter in Japan as part of his service.
He earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of North Carolina followed by master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan.
Binford served on the facilities of the University of Chicago and the University of California schools at Santa Barbara and at Los Angeles.
He began his work at UNM in 1968 as an associate professor in anthropology, and from 1984-91 served as a distinguished professor.
He joined the SMU faculty in 1991.
It was while teaching at UNM that Binford married early childhood educator Mary Ann Binford, who died in 1984. They lived for many years in Corrales.
Binford died April 11 in Kirksville, Mo. He survived by his wife, Amber Johnson, former wives Jean Riley Mock and Nancy Madaris Stone, daughter Martha and her partner Kit Zimmerman both of Belen. He was preceded in death by his parents, his former wives Sally and Mary Ann and son Clinton.