Binford, Lewis R. In Pursuit of the Past; Decoding the Archaeological
Record. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983.
A gap of more than twenty years separates Lewis Binford's "Archaeology as Anthropology" and In Pursuit of the Past; Decoding the Archaeological Record. Any kind of comparison may be unfair: one is a relatively short article on material culture published for a specialized audience; the other a compilation and reworking of general lectures given to audiences with varied backgrounds in Great Britain and Scandinavia. But the temptation to compare, and to imagine some sort of development, is difficult to resist -- and so I have not.
Beginning, then, at the beginning: what is Binford up to in 1962? He is thinking about copper tools and other rare objects as they were scattered and traded in a very wide network across North America in the Old Archaic period. This, in brief, the "Old Copper Problem:" in the Archaic period copper tools were used, but not reworked, and then buried with grave goods. In later Early Woodland burial assemblages these copper tools disappeared. To this problem Binford links a tripartite system of tool classification and a theory about how cultures form and reinforce hierarchies through material culture. In so doing, he crosses a "line" into anthropology.
Binford proposes that some objects are technomic, related specifically to the tasks of coping with the environment. So, a hunting bow, a parka, an adze, a flail. Socio-technomic are those objects which reinforce group bonds: a Tibetan apron, a university mace, a Green Bay Packer's hat. The third group is composed of ideotechnic artifacts, those items that express and reinforce the symbolic and religious belief system. Household gods, ancestral tablets, medicine bundles and, I suppose, temples and tombs fall into this category.
With this structure in place, Binford argues that the copper tools, not being much reworked, and having been buried, could not have been technomic tools; rather, they were socio-technomic. He further proposes that the political spectrum between egalitarian and hierarchical societies correlates both to the size of the group indicated by a site and to the range of socio-technomic objects present at a site. As societies became more densely populated, they developed symbols for status, rather than relying on simple personal recognition.
Binford disabuses the notion that falling away from copper tools was odd, an inexplicable loss of technological skills. He suggests that the copper was hard to work, and also not necessarily more durable than stone or bone. And the population in the Great Lakes area had expanded significantly during the Nissiping stage. Thus he proposes that the "copper tools had their primary functional context as symbols of achieved status in cultural systems with an egalitarian system of grading." These copper tools, indicating social status (not being tools in common use), disappeared with the disappearance of Late Archaic social structures.
Two points in this article lead onward to the lectures in 1980-81. He suggests that the copper tools may have been abandoned because they were not a good use of energy: "[a]daptive efficiency must also be viewed in terms of economy, that is energy expenditure versus energy conservation." (220-221) This point he takes up in his later work when he talks about the "slug principle." Second, he lays out a course of archaeological-anthropological "systems thinking."
"In this field of research archaeologists are in an excellent position to make major contributions to the general field of anthropology, for we can work directly in terms of correlations of the structure of artifact assemblages with rates of style change, directions of style-spread, and stability of style-continuity." (220).
The lectures captured by In Pursuit of Archaeology summarize twenty years such anthropological systems thinking: of bone counting, of close attention to site formation, of roaming with band and chief societies, of the use of models rather than maps. Structurally, the book follows a standard hermeneutical structure, asking three questions: "What was it like?" "What does in mean?" "Why did it happen?" Prior to setting off, he asks the "big questions" of archaeology: not when did humans become human in form, but when did humans become human in behavior? "What in fact were our earliest ancestors like?" (27)
Binford reviews the theories proposed by Dart, Leakey and Brain on early man as a hunter. What can one know from bones scattered around a water hole? First archaeologists might ask geologists how a watering hole is formed, then, consult with zoologists to learn which animals will use a watering hole at what time and what the bone ends of a kill might look like. Furthermore, archaeologists may want to turn to anthropologists to learn how people carrying out tasks low to the ground will arrange their working space. Finally, an archaeologist may compare the bone density to the scatter of stone tools, and the relative reworking of these tools, indicating one or multiple uses at particular sites. With these things in mind, Binford concludes that early humans lived away from watering holes, found, butchered and ate carcasses at the watering hole, and perhaps took some food back to living site.
In part two (What Does it Mean?) Binford groups his review of Mousterian tool technology with the way that hunters use and travel through a landscape and lifespace. First, he asks whether or not we can create a formal structure for tool development? Reviewing Bordes' and Kroeber's and his own work, he concludes that we have not yet created a conclusive or persuasive answer to the development of tool sets. Second, he turns to the use of resources in a landscape? He argues that the archaeological record will not speak unless we have seen hunter-gatherers using it themselves. Sleeping spaces, hunting space, waiting spaces have each their characteristic toss zones. Further, stability for a small band involves great mobility: unless they know about all the resources within their scope, they will not have alternative strategies of one or more of these resources fail to produce food.
In part three (Why Did It Happen?) Binford takes on theories of the
start of agriculture, and the ways that societies move from hunter-gatherer
bands to complex societies. He dismisses the idea that there was
a Garden of Eden which induced people to settle, or that man is necessarily
slug- like, taking the path of least resistance to a meal or a tool (see
his earlier thoughts, above). He argues, rather, that when the population
rises, small groups split off and take up a part of the formerly dormant
range. Bigger game is out of reach, and smaller game becomes a staple.
As people are crowded into smaller and smaller spaces, with depleted resources,
they have to turn to food producing methods that take up less room.
"It can be shown, for example, that any group of hunters which was forced
to subsist on shellfish as early in the year as February was only a short
step away from adopting agriculture." (212) This kind of thinking
typifies Binford's work, is what (to my mind) makes him interesting, and
also draws the ire of others upon his head (see below). Binford concludes
by arguing, I think sensibly, that hierarchies of power grow as individuals
find ways not to make the rules with impunity, but to break the rules with
impunity. Those most likely to engage in what we think of as entrepreneurial
activities are those broken off from, or broken away from, traditional
roles in society.