Lewis Binford 1931-2011

Binford is a name synonymous with archaeology. He was the figurehead of the processual movement towards a more scientific and rigorous archaeological approach, and caused archaeologists around the world to think more deeply about their assumptions and biases when applying methods and theories to their sites. In the past 50 years of his career, he produced over 150 papers, many of which are highly influential in method and theory. His focus on rigorous methods, middle range theory, and the importance of being explicit has helped create the archaeology that we know today.

In mortuary archaeology, Binford’s legacy lies with his addendum to one of the seminal arguments of our sub-field: the work done by Arthur Saxe. The first theory that truly revolutionized how mortuary archaeology was conducted was the Binford/Saxe hypothesis.  In accordance with the processual theory during the 1970’s, Saxe (1970) hypothesized that mortuary practices were deeply interrelated with the sociocultural system of the society and could provide a means for monitoring social complexity and inferring organizational type.  He aimed to show through ethnographic data that an individual’s social identity was symbolically represented in their burial, and that burials varied due to overall community complexity. He proposed eight hypotheses which were tested against the ethnographic research in order to find the validity of their application to archaeology. While the hypotheses proved to be largely inconclusive, the framework that he developed that consisted of mapping mortuary domains was widely accepted.

In a collection of works edited by Brown (Binford 1971a), archaeologists used the paradigm developed by Saxe and found that one could infer social status and community hierarchies from burial practices and grave goods. It was in this collection that Binford (1971a:23) updated Saxe’s initial hypotheses, arguing that subsistence strategy and social roles could also be inferred from the burial and associated grave goods of an individual. This expanded Saxe’s proposition that the social life of an individual and the complexity of the community can be directly correlated to the information gleaned from the burials. Binford argued that “the heterogeneity in mortuary practices which is characteristic of a single sociocultural unit would vary directly with the complexity of the status hierarchy, as well as the overall organization of society with regard to membership units and other forms of solidarity”(1971a:14-15). Binford also expanded this view onto a regional scale, applying a normative view of culture, so that multiple groups could be compared to one another. He argued that “the degree of formal similarity observed among independent sociocultural units is a direct measure of the degree of genetic affiliational cultural relationship among the units being compared” (1971a:9). Applying this directly to mortuary studies, this means that common funerary rituals or burial practices mean that there are common cultural behaviors.

Binford’s influence on mortuary archaeology expanded beyond this addendum, and he continued to challenge the assumptions and interpretations of archaeologist when he looked more in depth into ethnographic work on mortuary practices. He argued that variability in funerary traditions cannot be interpreted solely from ethnographic sources, but must be analyzed within the specific temporal and spatial context, and from the perspective of the cultural system under investigation. Archaeologists need to look for specific causes of changes in behavior or form, and not just attribute change to external forces or changes in popularity.

Personally, Binford has always been one of my intellectual heroes. I grew up surrounded by a perspective that closely mirrored his: strong scientific method, explicitness, questioning assumptions, and building arguments that bridge method and theory. My earliest archaeological training spent over half the course focusing on processual work- with Binford as the star. This undergraduate focus on Binford was so strong that I didn’t realize the benefits of some post-processual viewpoints until I reached graduate school. While now I have a better understanding of the range of archaeological viewpoints and the importance of more social interpretations, Binford was my grounding in archaeology and will always continue to be an important influence in my own work.

Works Cited

Binford, Lewis. 1971 Mortuary Practices: their study and potential. In Approaches to the Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology (25): 6-29.

Saxe, A. 1970 Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

2 responses to “Lewis Binford 1931-2011

  1. Ms.Myers,
    I am saddened by Dr. Binford’s passing. I knew him from studying under Art Saxe at Ohio U. I am wondering what happened to Art? His health was ot the greatest when I knew him 1971-1976.
    ( I got no where googling him)

    • Art Saxe died in the early 90’s. He and I were colleagues and friends at OU in the early 80’s and maintained that relationship after I left anthropology. He introduced me to a survivor of the Zanesville Massacre to teach me about oral history and archaeology,and, damn, he could play the living hell out of a banjo.

      I just came across this post today and learned of Lou’s death. Archaeology will never be the same…


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