Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lewis Binford & James Deetz as Innovators

Earlier this week archaeologist Lewis Binford (1930-2011) passed away.  He was famous in the 1960s-1980s era due to his innovations in theory and method.  While I never cared much for his work I do enjoy thinking about people’s careers.  Also, Binford is a nice contrast to James Deetz (1930-2000), who did influence me.  Both were cast as rivals in the 1970s and 80s.  I worked with Deetz in the summers during 1980-1984. 

These two archaeologists can be compared using David Galenson’s two categories, Young Geniuses and Old Masters [1].  I wrote about his work previously, here.

Galenson identified two types of innovators, Conceptual Innovators and Experimental Innovators. 

Conceptual Innovators are young geniuses whose work communicates discoveries and ideas.  They are deductive, plan their work carefully, have clear ideas in mind, work quickly to complete a project, and know when they are done.  Conceptual innovators peak early in their careers, before age 35, and their later work is less inspiring.  Conceptual painters regard experimental types as mere artisans, lacking in intelligence.  Conceptual innovators are “rationalists” who disregard other forms of thought as being useless; they view themselves as exceptional. 

Binford was a young genius and he peaked in the years 1962-1972.  He did a lot of work after that time that was very un-interesting (although his disciples can't get enough of it).  His writing style was also hard to follow so many folks preferred not to read him.  He undertook many projects but never really changed much theoretically.  He had a conceptual hammer and everything was a nail.  Here is a list of his important papers that started an intelectual movement in archaeology:

1962  Archaeology as Anthropology, American Antiquity 28(2):217-225.

1964 A Consideration of Archaeological Research Design, American Antiquity 29(4):425-441.

1965  Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process, American Antiquity 31 (2): 203-210.

1967  Smudge Pits and Hide Smoking: The Use of Analogy in Archaeological Reasoning, American Antiquity 32 (1):1-12.

1968. New Perspectives in Archaeology, Chicago, Aldine Press. (edited with Sally Binford)

1972  An Archaeological Perspective, New York, Seminar Press.

He became the most famous advocate of the New Archaeology that followed a strict form of hypothetico-deductive model based in logical positivism.  

He advocated one type of science and did not deviate from it, even while the profession moved beyond his ideas. The stuff he wrote in 2001 could easily have been done in 1962.  Galenson’s description of unbridled arrogance describes Binford very well.

Experimental innovators become Old Masters; they work inductively; planning is unimportant because they make their important decisions while working; they stop a project only when they cannot see how to continue it;  they view their enterprise as research, they need to accumulate personal knowledge and require that their techniques emerge from careful study;  they distrust theoretical propositions as facile and unsubstantiated; they work at an incremental slow pace; they have total absorption in the pursuit of ambitious, vague, and elusive goals, and they are frustrated with self perceived lack of success, and fear they may not live long enough to attain their realization.  Their career is an evolution.  Their best work is done later in life, usually after age 40.  Experimental painters consider conceptualists as intellectual tricksters, lacking in artistic ability and integrity.  Old Masters are intuitive thinkers who have learned to appreciate and integrate other types of thought. 

James Deetz was an  experimental innovator.  His career is a collection of interesting projects from slightly different perspectives, suggesting he was constantly changing and refining his own ideas and methods.  He seems to have gone through several stages, as reflected in various publications.

1. A broad based Anthropological archaeologist and artifact analyst willing to try new approaches to artifact analysis; he worked in both historic and prehistoric archaeology:

1960    An Archaeological Approach to Kinship Change in Eighteenth Century Arikara Culture. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 

1964    A Datable Chumash Pictograph from Santa Barbara County, California. American Antiquity 29(4):504-506. 

1965    The Dynamics of Stylistic Change in Arikara Ceramics. Illinois Studies in Anthropology, No. 4. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Il.

1967    Invitation to Archaeology. Natural History Press [Doubleday] for The American Museum of Natural History, Garden City, NJ. 

1970    Archaeology as a Social Science. In Current Directions in Archaeology, Bulletin of the American Anthropological Association 3(3), pt. 2:115-125.

Deetz, James, and Edwin S. Dethlefsen

1965    The Doppler Effect and Archaeology: A Consideration of the Spatial Aspects of Seriation. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 21(3):196-206.
1967    Death's Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow. Natural History 76(3):29-37.

2. Master Historical Archaeologist; he focuses on European settlement in North America:

1968    Late Man in North America: Archaeology of European Americans. In Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas, Betty J. Meggers, editor, pp. 121-130. Anthropological Society of Washington, Washington, D.C.

1972    Ceramics from Plymouth, 1620-1835: The Archaeological Evidence. In Ceramics in America, Ian M. G. Quimby, editor, pp. 15-40. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.
1974    A Cognitive Historical Model for American Material Culture, 1620-1835. In Reconstructing Complex Societies -- An Archaeological Colloquium, Charlotte B. Moore, editor, pp. 21-29. Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 20.

1977    In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Doubleday, Anchor Press, New York.

3. Negotiator; he merges and reworks ideas from different perspectives, and becomes an emissary for historical archaeology in South Africa under and after apartheid:

1983    Scientific Humanism and Humanistic Science: A Plea for Paradigmatic Pluralism in Historical Archaeology. In Historical Archaeology of the Eastern United States: Papers from the R.J. Russell Symposium, Robert W. Neuman, editor. Geoscience and Man 23: 27-34.

1987    Harrington Histograms versus Binford Mean Dates as a Technique for Establishing the Occupational Sequence of Sites at Flowerdew Hundred, Virginia. American Archaeology 6(1):62-67. 

1988    History and Archaeological Theory: Walter Taylor Revisited. American Antiquity53(1):13-22.
1988    American Historical Archaeology: Methods and Results. Science 239:362-367.

1989    Archaeography, Archaeology, or Archeology? American Journal of Archaeology 93(3):429-435.

Scott, Patricia E., and James Deetz

1990    Building, Furnishings and Social Change in Early Victorian Grahamstown. Social Dynamics 16(1):76-89.

Winer, Margot, and James Deetz

1990    The Transformation of British Culture in the Eastern Cape, 1820-1860. Social Dynamics 16(1):55-75.

4. The Old Master, at the top of his game:

1993    Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619-1864. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. 

1994    Foreword. In A Chesapeake Family and Their Slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology, by Anne Elizabeth Yentsch, pp. xviii-xx. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 

1998    Discussion: Archaeologists as Storytellers. In Archaeologists as Storytellers, Adrian Praetzellis and Mary Praetzellis, editors. Historical Archaeology 32(1):94-96. 

1999    Archaeology at Flowerdew Hundred. In "I, Too, Am America": Archaeological Studies of African-American Life, Theresa A. Singleton, editor, pp. 39-46. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

5. Folklorist; reflecting on a life well lived:

Deetz, James, and Patricia Scott Deetz

2000    The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. W.H. Freeman, New York.

Deetz started out as a modernist archaeologist, a blend of cultural historian and structuralist, a believer in science.  He became a raconteur, banjo player, and humanist.

                                  Deetz at Flowerdew Hundred, May 1984. Photo by Carlen Luke.

1.  David W.  Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses:  The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Princeton University Press, 2006.  


  1. Very interesting post, I also like your blog "Dionysus Apollo" really interesting.

    Josh Deetz

  2. A late post but one to note that Deetz learned to tell a story. Binford never did.