Background

Archaeology and science have always had something of an on-again, off-again relationship

It’s a delicate balance that needs to be reached, archaeologists want to embrace science and all it has to offer, specifically the scientific method and solid, quantified results, but on the other hand, nobody wants to sacrifice the very real human aspect of archaeology.

The first revolution in archaeology was that of the “New” Archaeology, led by the very charismatic Lewis Binford. (One of my favourite accounts of Lewis Binford’s charisma is from Kent Flannery, who describes Binford as “… a charismatic southerner who had mastered the fire-and-brimstone style of a revival meeting. He opened his first class by announcing, “My name is Lewis R. Binford, and the name of this course is Revelations!” By the end of that class, half the students were speaking in tongues.”). New archaeology promised a more scientific approach to archaeology, in which general universal laws governing human behaviour would be uncovered and used to explain anything and everything in the archaeological record. This new explanatory power would, in turn, enable archaeology to “step up” and take on the responsibility required of it by the broader field of anthropology.

In 1962 Binford published an article in American Antiquity titled ‘Archaeology as Anthropology. This article is considered by many to be the origin of the New Archaeology revolution.

In this article, Binford argues that culture is a means of adaptation to a human being’s natural surroundings. Based on this assumption, it is further argued that universal laws of human behaviour can explain the variations and similarities observed in the material remains of the human past over space and time. Binford calls for archaeology to take on its fair share of responsibility as a sub-discipline of anthropology, claiming that in the past, archaeology had not offered enough in the way of explanation.

Binford published a series of articles promoting his idea of new, or “processual” archaeology which culminated in a collection of papers taken from “The Social Organization of Prehistoric Societies”, a symposium organised by Binford for the 1965 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. This collection, edited by Binford and his then wife, Sally, was called New Perspectives in Archaeology (1968). In the first chapter of the book, Binford claims that traditional archaeology has failed in its potential to assist with any of the objectives of anthropology, which is to use the archaeological record to inform cultural history, past life ways, and general cultural processes. Binford felt that this was due to traditional archaeology’s inductivist values, which would limit archaeology to a refined form of antiquarianism. Binford was a strong believer in the power of deductive reasoning to gain knowledge, and conversely that inductive reasoning was non-scientific and therefore untrustworthy.

As Sally Binford recalls the reception to their book and the revolution it caused; “We turned out a series of articles and a book, New Perspectives in Archaeology, that took the whole field of archaeology and shook it up. Lew didn’t have grad students as much as he had disciples.”

However, after this whirlwind affair between archaeology and science, the scientific method and deductive reasoning, a backlash quickly followed.

Philosophers of science stepped in and demonstrated that the deductive-nomological method Binford had borrowed from philosophers Carl Hempel and Paul Oppenheim had in fact been long refuted bu Karl Popper.

Binford distanced himself from processual archaeology, downplaying his role in its rise. He claimed it had been a revolution for the sake of revolution, that it brought little of merit to anthropology, and that he had been a mouthpiece for others.

Post-processual archaeology gained momentum in response to the failings of processual archaeology. Post-processualists argued that archaeology was entirely subjective, and could not be approached with the scientific method.

I personally like Binford’s ideas, except that he perhaps rushed into things without doing enough research and without having enough understanding of the history and philosophy of science. I hope to find a happy medium in which archaeology, rather than being a scientific discipline, is instead enhanced by what other scientific disciplines have to offer.

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  1. Pingback: Celebrity Fashions in the Field | Archaeology and Science

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