"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:
- New World (perhaps)
- Recent theoretical/methodological
- 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.