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FROM: Processual Archaeology: Exploring Analytical Strategies, Frames of Reference, and Cultural Process. Edited by Amber L. Johnson. (Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood, 2004).
THE MIND OF Lewis Binford is nimble and constantly evolving. In part, one can map Binford's prodigious intellectual growth by looking at the research trajectories of his students, who often continue on paths they began under his tutelage. In my case, certainly, this is very true. When I arrived at the University of New Mexico in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Binford was exploring the nature of the archaeological record: how to understand past human organization at a supra-ethnographic scale, what we might learn from bones and site structure, and how to reliably give meaning to the archaeological record. This chapter, harking back to the early 1980s, focuses on the latter and attempts to organize some of the many thoughts that have been offered on the notion initially known as middle-range theory. Fundamental questions in archaeology are: What is it? How old is it? Why did people make it? Why did they stop making it? What do these patterns in artifacts, structures, and so forth mean at a deeper level? When students of archaeology ask and answer these questions, they are confronted with Meno's Puzzle and Merlin's subterfuge. Meno was the imaginary debater with whom Plato puzzled over the detection of Virtue (Evans 1995). If we knew how to recognize Virtue in a person, then we could and would do so. But, if Virtue's distinguishing characteristics are a mystery to us, how will we recognize a virtuous individual when one appears? Mark Twain's Merlin, the resident magician in King Arthur's court, was capable of discerning activities happening at great distances, even 10,000 miles away. Shockingly, however, Merlin could not reckon the contents of the Connecticut Yankee's pocket, though both were located in the same room.
In archaeology, three related problems surface. First, without traveling back in time, how can we really know what the past was like? Second, can we learn about the past without imposing the present on the past (Wobst 1978)? That is, can the past somehow speak for itself and tell us something different than we think we already know? Finally, assuming that we can learn about the past, how do we know those knowledge claims are secure?