Anthropology, Department of


Date of this Version



Wandsnider, LuAnn

2004 Solving Meno’s Puzzle, Defeating Merlin’s Subterfuge: Bodies of Reference Knowledge and Archaeological Inference. In Processual Archaeology: Exploring Analytical Strategies, Frames of Reference, and Culture Process, edited by A. Johnson, pp. 315-33x. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.


Copyright (c) 2004 by Amber L. Johnson


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 (Dunnell 1992; Gould 1978; Twain 1917).

Meno's Puzzle and Merlin's subterfuge have, in various guises, been visited by archaeologists (Ascher 1961; Binford 1967, 1968, 1977b, 1980, 1981, 1987a; Butler 1965; Clarke 1978; Dunnell 1982; Gould 1978; Gould /and Watson 1982; Lowther 1962; Short 1998; Sullivan 1978; Trigger 1995; Tschauner 1996; Wylie 1982, 1985, 1989a, 1989b, 1992a, 1992b, 1996) and others (Gould 1965) with some frequency over the last several decades, for they engage the heart of the matter of validly learning something about a past that had virtues perhaps very different from those familiar to us. In the archaeological literature, Meno's Puzzle appears as the methodological paradox (Binford 1977b:3; Ramenofsky and Steffen 1998:3), while Merlin's subterfuge is concerned with the validity of knowledge claims about a past "10,000 miles" distant.

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?

Lewis Binford (1962) answered the first question in 1962 by noting that the archaeological record is a contemporary phenomenon and that from it we derive inferences about what the past was like. Middle-range theory was part of the solution to both Meno's Puzzle and Merlin's subterfuge and the answer to the final two questions offered by Binford (1977b; 1981) in the late 1970s. As initially articulated by Binford, middle-range theory had several necessary attributes. First, it defined an unambiguous relationship between enduring, material archaeological phenomenon and a generating condition or process. Second, this relationship had to be uniformitarian in nature, that is, occurring in the past, which we hope to learn about, as well in the present, where it could be understood and documented. Moreover, it had to be warrantable as such. And it had to be independent of ideas about the past one hoped to evaluate, and thus could be used in an instrumental fashion to infer the occurrence of past processes from observations on patterned contemporary archaeological phenomena. Binford described middle-range theory as the Rosetta Stone to the archaeological record and as a means for linking the bear footprint of a physical record and the bear in the dynamic systemic realm. In this way it offered a robust, independent observational language with which to describe the archaeological record and interpret it in terms of past conditions (Binford 1981:25).