Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Binford vs. Childe: Who was the most influential archaeologist?

"Lewis Binford was the most influential archaeologist of the 20th century."  (Robert Kelly 2011).

"V. Gordon Childe was the most influential archaeologist of the 20th century." (Michael Smith 2009).

So, who is right here? Kelly's remarks are from his very nice obituary of Lewis Binford in Science, May 20, 2011, p. 928; my quote is from: Smith, Michael E.   (2009)   V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, this question would have been a no-brainer. I found Binford's emphasis on science and rigor new and exciting, very attractive to someone who wandered into archaeology from a math/science background. On the other hand Childe's work (the one article I forced to read, "The Urban Revolution") was boring and obvious. Ho hum, what's so great about this? He is saying what all the textbooks say, big deal! But the reason I found Childe's work obvious was that he had largely created modern archaeological views of past society, and the textbooks and current research all flowed from Childe.

Perhaps if one qualifies the superlative, the question is easier to resolve:

Binford was the most influential ___________ archaeologist:
  • Anthropological
  • New World (perhaps)
  • Recent theoretical/methodological
  • Hunter/gatherer
Childe, on the other hand, was the most influential ____________ archaeologist:
  • Prehistoric
  • Old World
  • Early 20th century theoretical
  • Neolithic and states

But if qualifications are not allowed, I stand with my prior assessment: Childe over Binford, no contest.

Childe created the modern social interpretation of the archaeological record. His concepts of the Neolithic Revolution and Urban Revolution synthesized vast amounts of data from around the world for the first time. He emphasized the importance of these transformations in human history. Almost all subsequent archaeological research on agricultural origins, the rise of states, and everything in between, is based on Childe's foundational work. My 2009 paper is an exploration not only of the historical importance of Childe's Urban Revolution concept, but also of its continuing importance and influence today. I don't think there is any concept or breakthrough by Binford that comes close to the broad influence of the concepts of the Neolithic Revolution and the Urban Revolution.

Binford founded the New Archaeology, which had major theoretical and methodological influences in the latter part of the 20th century. But many of his theoretical innovations were quickly challenged by the postprocessualists, and today they seem less earth-shattering than they did when I was an undergraduate. Binford's call for archaeology to be anthropology now seems almost quaint. He meant that archaeologists should study society and social change, in place of the prior classificatory and descriptive  orientation of much of New World archaeology. But Childe had made the same argument decades earlier (more for social interpretation generally, less for anthropology specifically), and good social interpretations of archaeological data long pre-dated Binford and the New Archaeology. Although some of today's social interpretations of the archaeological record are heavily influenced by Binford, much owes little to his work.

On the topic of hunters/gathers, however, there is no contest; Binford is a towering figure in this area, and Childe made quite modest contributions. Perhaps it is not surprising that Bob Kelly, a hunter/gatherer type, calls Binford the most influential archaeologist, while as an urban type I see Childe as more important.

Lewis Binford was extremely influential for a generation of anthropological archaeologists. He also had important theoretical and methodological influence on archaeology world-wide. But to my mind, Gordon Childe had a much bigger impact on how archaeologists interpret the past and on the discipline more generally.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on your choice. However, if we include the 19th century as well I guess there are people like Thomsen who introduced the Three Age System which people use in many parts of the world. I doubt that he made much more long-lasting contributions than that but his simplified system still influences many archaeologists (including Childe). It is always good to be a pioneer in a field. No contemporary archaeologist will ever be able to make such long-lasting contributions.

So, who is the most influential Mesoamerican archaeologist?

Michael E. Smith said...

Good question for Mesoamerica. I don't think I'm ready to make a decision, but here are a few thoughts:

(1) The most influential Mesoamericanist (not necessarily archaeology): Eduard Seler.

(2) The most influential Mayan archaeologist: Sylvanus Morley? J. Eric Thompson? Gordon Willey? I don't know the historiography of Maya archaeology well enough to make a judgment.

(3) The most influential central Mexican archaeologist: William Sanders.

(4) The most influential Mesoamerican archaeology of recent decades: Kent Flannery or William Sanders. This would be a good argument for the bar at the SAA meeting.

Anonymous said...

What about actively publishing archaeologists? Who would be most influential now if one takes a global perspective. Or are we passed that period of archaeology where one individual can make that kind of contribution? Is archaeology becoming like the movies, where every film is now either a bio piece or a remake of a movie or TV show from the 80s.

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, fad vs. solid influence is tough to judge until after the fact. Will archaeologists think that these current fads are important 20 years from now?

Feasting. Heterarchy. Identity. Landscape.

My guess is no.

If archaeology continues along an interpretivist track, then Ian Hodder will certainly be near the top of the list. And maybe Binford too, for doing so much to rile up the postprocessualists and egg them on to greater heights of relativism and fantasy. If archaeology swings back toward a scientific approach (my strong preference), then Hodder's influence will be much lower.

Sunset Survey said...

I just wanted to comment that we love your blog and the lively discussions had here. It is refreshing to find such a valued source of current data on our industry.

I would agree that things certainly have changed in the field of archaeology and some of what is being done today may in fact be a fad but the natural progression and expansion of the field seems logically sound.

Marcus said...

Also agree on Childe, but I'm biased towards post-Neolithic/Urban Revolution as well.

What do you think about Childe's materialism as developed in his book Society and knowledge (1956)? I think this strand of work, also in other publications, of his is hugely underrated. The only archaeologist I know that really used it was Bruce Trigger. Childe makes important points here, which, if dealt with critically, are relevant today.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus - I'm not familiar with that book. I will definitely take a look when I'm back from Mexico. Childe is full of surprises, even for those of us who don't work in the Old World.