Flaming the Dead – Alice Beck Kehoe vs. Lew Binford

Lewis Binford and His Moral Majority is an excoriating article that attacks the late Lewis Binford on a primarily professional but also a profoundly personal level. All of the inset quotes are Kehoe’s.

As a close contemporary (of Lewis Binford) I watched from the sidelines as he drew disciples into a cohesive little army, assaulted our elders, and claimed the mantle of genius theoretician. From the sidelines, I saw that this emperor was as naked as they come, and puny.

If you didn’t take Introduction to Archaeology in the USA, you might not know the legacy of Lewis Binford. He professed to bring a new era of science and method to Archaeology, and people generally believe him. He died  back in April and there have been many eulogies dedicated to him, extolling his influence on Americanist archaeology.

Lewis Binford turned to lithics. Lithics were called ‘projectile points,’ never mind that nearly every one excavated came from domestic contexts, plus were not sufficiently symmetrical to allow a projectile to fly straight. Being a housewife, I could see that practically all these points are kitchen knife blades, they are the size of my indispensable little kitch knife and like it, have one side of the tip thinned and sharp, the opposing side lightly ground so one can put one’s finger on it to press in cutting. Guys didn’t know kitchen knives.

Reductionist gendering aside, I think Alice Kehoe does know her knives, and has been sharpening them for a long time. She repeatedly cites many others who have done much more rigorous work than Binford, earlier, and better. She completely undermines his legacy and throws in a few extra punches for effect. Finally, she celebrates his death:

The field is free for an empirical archaeology that begins with the syntagm in the ground and moves along a careful chain of signification to a paradigm drawn from rich compendia of ethnographic and historical data, nuanced by firsthand experience with First Nations collaborators and postcolonial appreciation of their histories.

As a non-processual, non-Americanist, non-Great Basin, non-syntagm-seeking archaeologist, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I read Sally Binford’s account of her time with Lewis with great interest back in 2008, and remain enormously interested in individual archaeological practice. I have had my own experiences with idealizing archaeologists, and have subsequently encountered both great disappointment and incredible affirmation. Ultimately, they are flawed individuals and you can like or dislike someone on a personal level, but admire or abhor their work. To be completely cynical, it seems that people are published or cited because their peers like them or are afraid of them, or their peers are similarly trained and don’t know any better. Is it considered brave to call people out, as Kehoe has done, even before Binford died? Or is it just written off as academic in-fighting, or worse, ignored?

What has struck me as I’ve “leveled-up” in archaeology is how few controls there really are over veracity of data and field methodology. It used to terrify me–okay, it still does–but now it motivates me to be both as widely experienced and as meticulous as possible, in this most humanistic of sciences.

No gods, no masters…right?