Saturday, 7 September 2013

Stones: Don't be so bloody processual!


Your days are numbered, Wheeler! That dashing moustache won't save you!

Well, do. Cos it actually gets things done.

It's been a while since I wrote a "Stones" post, so I hope you are all excited and thrilled to be about to read a chunk of archaeological theory. I know I am! In the last post on Levi-Strauss I arrived at a depressing conclusion- we can never shed our skins, our histories, our biases and preferences and take a good clear look at the past. There's not really such a thing as truth, just opinion.

Except, well, a school of archaeological theory that grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s says that there is. It's called processualism- because it uses structured, logical, sort of scientific processes to find out the most secure information possible about the past. Now, a lot of people who continue to employ this kind of archaeological theory are the people that go "Ugh. Theory is pointless- what a waste of time. It's just idiots arguing about semiotics, when they could be doing good science." But do you know what? They themselves are proponents of a this particular school of thought and way of doing things- they are evangelists for processualism as a way of thinking about the past.

But how do you apply science to archaeology, and call it theory? In a world of radiocarbon dating, intricate osteological analysis, CT scans and all that jazz (let alone the world's most exciting archaeological science, consulting the vole clock*), using new methods to interrogate the past feels second nature. But think back to the first Stones post, and the second- go outside your own head and into the late 1950s. This was a time in which the majority of archaeologists lined up rows of similar pots and called them cultures, arguing for diffusion of ideas and the steady evolution of culture. It took some bright, rebellious thinkers to break away from this kind of practice, dragging archaeology out of Victorian speculation and into the light of the scientific and technological revolution that was coming.

One of Binford's amazing drawings- the anatomy of a kill site

Chief of these young rebels (strange though it seems now) was an American called Lewis Binford. I was gutted when he died in 2011. Binford in later life was kind of a big deal- and rightly so. Because when he was a graduate student, he got very fed up very quickly with the kind of culture history being peddled as archaeology- particularly after early radiocarbon dates proved that most of this speculation was wildly inaccurate. And, unlike me and thousands of other moaning PhD students, Binford actually did something about it. He was interested in the Mousterian, a period of the Upper Paleolithic. But rather than drawing endless pieces of flint and arguing about the position of hearths, he wanted to know why these objects were made, and how they related to the people who produced them. Binford's thought was that the environment of Ice Age Europe had encouraged the creation of particular kinds of site- but how could he make this argument? By going, in 1969, to an area of North America with similar climactic conditions, and seeing how people their used tools, lived in their landscape and organised their seasonal lifestyles. The results were fantastic- assemblages and sites, seen in a similar context, suddenly made sense for the first time.  Binford's research methodology more or less changed the archaeological world. He made the connection between archaeological study and what people actually do- their behaviour, and he proved beyond doubt that sociologists and social anthropologists had a great deal to offer.

Top bloke, Lewis Binford.


Ironically, by developing a more objective approach to archaeology, and spawing the processual movement that adopted his ideas and can be found in any pub bashing poor old Ian Hodder, Binford also laid the ground for modern archaeological theory. He made it safe and acceptable for archaeologists to engage with the ideas of philosophers and thinkers from outside our world of pots, stones and bones. So in the next few Stones posts, I'm going to look at a series of sociologists, anthopologists and thinkers, all of whom have influenced archaeology- but none of whom would have had a chance without Lew Binford and his ability to get up off his arse and change the world.

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