Sally Binford

Sally Binford with her poodle, Jake. Photo credit: Honey Lee Cottrell, source: SFMOMA (click); cropped from original.

There is not much question that Lewis Binford was one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th century – if not the founder, then the loudest exponent of “The New Archaeology“.  Like a lot of archaeologists not of a certain age, nor of a certain geography, I had never really focused on the co-editor of one of his more influential books, New Perspectives in Archaeology: Sally Binford.  Insofar as I had thought of her, I imagined some sort of academic liaison followed by her giving up her career, this being the 1960s and all – a not uncommon pattern.  Who was this other Binford, this flash in the pan?  I can’t be the only one who has wondered that, and not being plugged into the grandest social circles of the discipline, I’m turning to the internet.

Turns out she was superbly interesting in her own right.  I just came across a blog post recounting an interview excerpted from this book, which she gave not long before her death in 1994 (a death by her own hand on a date she had set 20 years ahead – one day before her 70th birthday.  She took her poodle, Jake, with her).  I  found the whole thing from A Very Remote Time Indeed.

I don’t endorse the interview in any particular way, clearly it is her perspective, but since Lewis Binford is a well known blowhard it can’t hurt to hear something from the other side of those days – especially as it also implicates the academic culture of Anthropology in the 1960s as including strong anti-semitic and racist undertones.  So, it is rather voyeuristically fascinating for me to read the lengthy interview,  but I warn it is a somewhat not-safe-for-work link.  There are some nude bodies and so forth, reflecting her post-archaeology career as a sex educator and sexual liberationist of some note.  Scroll down about halfway for the meetup with Lewis.  I’m pasting in some excerpts “below the fold”.

This whole thing is only tangentially related to the Northwest Coast and may be much too “inside baseball” for many readers, but the entire interview is quite compelling as a portrait of a cutting edge feminist and free thinker who intersected briefly, yet, brightly, with archaeology.

Lewis Binford.

In the late 1950s, Sally (Rosen) had been married twice, divorced twice, and had a young daughter, and was entering university at the ripe age of 32.

I continued to do good work, did some field work, did my thesis and got my Ph.D., much to the surprise of everyone there except perhaps my advisor and me.

“The first big hurdle was the prelims. The Chicago department at that point, had a policy of taking in large numbers of grad students. In my entering class there were 44, and perhaps 3 or 4 of us would receive a Ph.D.; it was that difficult. The big filtering thing was the prelims—two days of written exams over physical and cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics.

“When I took the exams the students were identified by number and not by name on them so I passed. The departmental secretary was a black woman who liked me. That summer I stopped by the office and she asked if I had gotten a Ph.D. pass and I said yes. She said Dr. Tax [founder of Current Anthropology Sol Tax– ed] sent in the wrong grade for you. She showed me he had sent into the registrar’s office that I had gotten a terminal masters, which meant I couldn’t go on for the Ph.D. She told me I could get to the very end of my career and it would be my word versus his.

“I went to the registrar’s office and to the various faculty members who knew I had creamed the exam and got the grade changed. It was pretty awful. For me to have to rectify this error was awful. Definitely it was an intentional error.

Against this backdrop, Sally bonded with new, junior faculty Lewis Binford, seven years her junior:

“In 1961 or 1962 Lew Binford joined the faculty at Chicago. He was the boy wonder. He is seven years younger than I. He was very handsome, very charming, very bright, very funny. He had been married a couple of times before. When I was writing my thesis our offices were right next to one another. We became good buddies and talked a lot about archaeology. Went to lunch together a lot. He was a heavy drinker and some nights he would leave the bars, come by my house and ring the doorbell at 2 a.m., obviously on the make. I said to him, “I’m sorry, you’re very charming, and I really admire your head, but I don’t fuck faculty.”

“When I came back from my dig, Lew was there waiting and the two of us got together then. He was running a dig the summer of 1963 in Southern Illinois and I went with him to work. He was coming up for tenure. Lew was extremely smart, but extremely crazy and aggressive. He had managed to alienate all the senior faculty at Chicago. Hanging out with me, and the two of us going back to Chicago and living together (in sin) we knew would be the last straw in terms of his tenure.

“He said, ‘Let’s get married.’

“I said, ‘Lew, marriage is not my thing. I’ve tried it twice and I’m not good at it.’

“‘That’s because you haven’t married the right man.’

“I said, ‘I will marry you for the sake of your tenure


“Lew and I became a professional couple of some note. Our skills were somewhat complimentary. He was New World; I was Old World. He was great on statistics and I knew the Old World data. He was a theory person. I was a data person. We turned out a series of articles and a book, New Perspectives in Archaeology, that took the whole field of archaeology and shook it up.

“Lew didn’t have grad students as much as he had disciples. He was very charismatic and he turned out some real first-rate students in Chicago during the time he was there. He had been a grad student at Michigan, but he had thesis problems and couldn’t finish his Ph.D. He couldn’t pass his French exam which the University required for him to get his Ph.D.

“I, in essence, helped him cheat on the French exam which he took in absentia from Michigan. Lew was from a middle-class family from the South. He was an extremely brilliant guy, but couldn’t write a sentence that made sense— that had a subject and a predicate. His writing was unspeakable. My job in the marriage became to translate what Lew wrote into English and to get him his Ph.D.


“I served another trickier function: one of Lew’s fatal flaws is that he’s a pathological liar—and most of the time he didn’t know he was doing it. He is truly incapable of
distinguishing what he wants to believe from what is real. He had a distressing tendency to “improve” data. He would generate a large number of original and intriguing ideas—90% of which bore little or no relationship to reality, but the 10% that were valid were great. I would attempt to steer him away from his more imaginative notions and help him in finding data to support the sounder ones, then help him write them up in comprehensible English.

“My role was super woman. I could do anything. I could cook, clean house, take his exams for him, translate his thesis into English. I could do all this and still carry on my own career. The first two years we were together we were both turned-on intellectually and sexually. It was a very, very high time for us both. Eventually it got to a point where he was claiming all the credit for what we had done and Chicago was going to fire him.

“I had a teaching job at Northwestern University. We lived in the south side of Chicago, 2 miles from where he worked, but 26 miles from where I worked. I drove the 26 miles up and back to Northwestern to teach. Lew, who was a drinker, would smoke dope occasionally, but his real thing was being a workaholic who could work like a fiend five days a week and every weekend get blind, falling-down drunk.

Binford did not get tenure at Chicago – whether from jackassery or pathological lying, or both, and after some perambulations they went to UCLA

“The chairman of the UCLA department and two of the faculty members there, who have since become significant names in the field, made the bargain where this would be the one anthropology department, besides Harvard, where no Jews were hired. Sometime that fall I heard this and made a great point of signing myself Sally Rosen Binford. I also made a point of speaking a few words of Yiddish at the faculty gatherings.”

She goes on to describe the strange politics of late 1960s Anthropology, where numbers of faculty were on the CIA payroll for their SE Asian expertise ,and most of the students were stoned. Chafing under the bit-role she had been assigned at UCLA, she continues:

Once again at UCLA I was extra faculty; I had no permanent post. I was a lecturer and my husband had the ladder position. Everybody was recruiting faculty like mad at that point. We were contacted by the University of New Mexico, where we were both offered full-time positions. It sounded tempting, but at that time the marriage was in very bad shape. I knew in 1967 that the marriage was through, but Lew’s and my lives were so connected in the field that it wasn’t going to be easy to get out.

“In addition to doing the work with Lew, I wanted to follow my own interests and concerns. I applied for a senior postdoctoral grant with the National Science Foundation in 1968 to do further research in the Near East on some Neanderthal sites that were of some interest to me. When I got the grant, Lew said, ‘If you go I won’t be here when you get back.’

“I said, ‘Now wait a minute here, I’ve been helping you with your career this whole time.”

Instead of telling him to get lost and going out and doing it, I folded and agreed to both apply for another grant, which we did—which was a big mistake.

“It was probably one of the weirdest and most awful years of my life. I was so furious with him and so resentful. He was drinking and became physically abusive. In 1966 or 1967 at
UCLA we were having a fight about something. I said something very sarcastic and he took his hand and just cracked it across my face and sent my glasses flying across the room. He
was 6’3” and over 200 pounds.

I phoned the cops who were not anxious to help me. One of the cops took him out and put his arm around him and said, ‘Just love her up a little and it will be okay.’ I was fit to kill. I had never been struck in my life and I was furious. The cops left and Lew was walking around feeling smug and happy.

“A few days later I said,”You are so helpless, you can’t even boil water. I cook everything you eat and everything you drink. I just want to tell you the next time you lay a finger on me you are going to wonder what the hell is in that cup of coffee, that bowl of soup.’

‘”You castrating c***!’

“I said, ‘That’s right, you got it, but don’t you ever lay a finger on me again!” I had to do something. I was not going to take that kind of crap.

“We left Los Angeles and went to France for a hideous year— the year was dreadful, in terms of work, in terms of politics, our relationship. We came back to Albuquerque, which has to be the ass-end of nowhere. I said okay, I signed a contract; I’ll teach my classes this year but when this year is over I’m leaving.

“The more I thought about leaving, the more I withdrew from him, the crazier and more violent he got. He was hospitalized a couple of times because he was hallucinating. He was just mad. He claimed to have a bad heart; they could find nothing wrong with his heart, but he was having seizures. It was just really awful. He went off to Alaska to do field work in the spring of ’69 and I finished teaching my classes, put all my stuff in storage, put my dog in the car and split.

“I was invited to a UNESCO conference in Paris that summer. I spent some time in France, met some friends and hung around. I stayed with friends in Washington D.C. that year and spent a lot of time commuting between Washington and Cambridge. I was thoroughly disenchanted with anthropology at that time.

“I was really in a weird position where the subject matter still turned me on. I still follow the journals; I still keep up with what’s going on in research, but I thought I cannot sit through one more fucking faculty meeting. I just cannot sit through one more meeting with these bastards. I’m going to stand up and scream,’You’re just a bunch of sexist, racist, right-wing pigs!’

“Of course, at this point I had a reputation as a trouble maker in the field. Being a smart, uppity woman did not win me any favors. The Nixon administration had come in and research funds had been cut. I got a couple of job offers— one from Central Michigan and one from the University of Montana. I thought I don’t want to spin out my sunset years in Missoula, Montana. I think I’ll go back to the West Coast and get a place on the beach and spend a year just thinking about what I would do with the rest of my life. At that point I was so involved with academia. I thought I just can’t leave it.”

She went on to a rich and varied life after leaving Lewis Binford.  With the rare combination of  intellect and passion she possessed, I guess she was one of the brighter lights in Archaeology to be blown out by the bombastic and bullying Lewis Binford. No doubt there are two sides to any story, but the frankness and candour of her account, and what can only be described as a track record of intellectual shouting on the part of the Male Binford, leaves me little doubt who I believe.   I still torture my students with some classic L. Binford each semester but will do so now with less glee and, you could say, a new archaeological perspective,  from now on.

Sally and Jake. Photo credit: Honey Lee Cottrell; source:

12 responses to “Sally Binford

  1. I like her comment -“Paleopsychology is a dangerous field.” The problem is, how can we NOT indulge in it.


  2. wow, this is an incredible story… Pentagon papers, UChicago, herpes and all.. Interesting northern and southern California connections too. I wonder what stories and insights they know and tell about her in seminars at UC Berkeley and Stanford where there are institutionally established feminist scholars in archaeology.


    • Yes, I remember the scandal of anthropologists being hired by the CIA. Wouldn’t have been so bad if it was merely to learn, but it was using knowledge to know what strings to pull in a Machiavellian way that would be the most powerful, leading to some of the mountain tribes being allies of the US.

      I’ll have to read more of those links when I have time. I wonder who helped him write ‘Smoke and Dog’s Tails”; which is much more readable than some of the stuff he put out with Sally.

      Reading his own memoir segments in his books was always highly entertaining in its own right.

      “He is truly incapable of
      distinguishing what he wants to believe from what is real. He had a distressing tendency to “improve” data. ”

      Unfortunately, he’s not alone…….


  3. val: Since the past is over, the two lenses between stuff and behaviour are ethnographic analogy and experiment. The former is hard to connect to material things, the latter is hard to connect to real people. This is the central explanatory dilemma in all archaeology. So, yeah, a lot of the finely-wrapped sciencey stuff in archaeology is built on a house of weakly-argued sand.

    twoeyes: not to mention, people who like to surf.

    Morley: the thing is, the co-option of Anthropologists into the military is actually undergoing an unbelievable resurgence, under the (equally unbelievable) euphemism “Human Terrain Systems”. This is probably the biggest ethical issue in cultural anthropology south of the border in several decades.


  4. Thank you for writing about your discoveries about Sally. It’s my blog posts that you found, and the story at Salon.

    You’re right, Sally would be impatient with the term NSFW. She quite rightly pointed out that women’s natural lives were considered Taboo Material.

    Sally was an “auntie” and mentor to me beyond compare. There’s not a week goes by that I dont’ think about her. Her PhD diploma is on my desk.

    I met Sally when I was a child and she was one of my father’s colleagues at UCLA.

    Later, I grew close to her because of our mutual friendship with the photographer whose work you’ve reprinted here. All the photos of Sally in your post are by Honey Lee Cottrell. I will let her know her work is here.

    I hope you’ll be able to contact us for licensing next time— it would have been gladly given, but it’s good to be asked.


  5. Susie, thanks for stopping by. I felt a bit ashamed that I had never given much thought to the “other Binford”, and what I found out was very inspiring.

    I apologize for a lack of etiquette in not asking first re: the extensive quotes, and I will add Ms Cottrell’s name to the photos, which are linked to where I found them.


  6. Interesting post and links to the Sally Binford story (random thread thing way cool). Life of real extremes. I often wondered what became of her, and having met Big Lew a few times, including a couple of times in Vancouver, I must agree with much of the characterization she provided. He is nonetheless brilliant and actually very generous, while frank, in his work with and guidance to students. Two sides to every story. Sally and Lew together, though, what a team.


  7. An excellent interview! And by an excellent anthropologist, showing really insightful and incisive perspectives on everyday life. The stuff Sally did with Lew was extremely important. Of course, Lew was never close to 6’3″, I doubt if he ever was even 6′, but it also has been only in the last few years with failing health he has been down to 200 lbs in the last 40 years.

    I was teaching at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1970-1972, and the stories I heard from friends at Albuquerque, 350 miles away, about Binford’s strange behavior, although not the same as in this interview, support the same general picture. Certainly I have never seen the kind of behavior in Dept. meetings that was reported.

    Interestingly enough, I was an UG at UC Riverside, where almost the entire dept. faculty received their degrees from either UCLA or Berkeley, and unanimously advised not to go to either one for graduate work! Berkeley because of R.F. Heizer, the main North American archaeologist, UCLA because of the severe dept. infighting, yet Sally indicates that Santa Barbara was worse! I had wondered if Lew had left Santa Barbara because of his strong need to be the local cultural hero, and that position had already been filled there by James Deetz, whom Sally doesn’t mention. Certainly, the only way one could get away with his reported behavior over time would to be a culture hero, which he was at UNM.


  8. Hi R.G. and Mad Dog,

    Thanks very much for your glimpses of Lewis Binford and your comments on this post. I think I heard it put once that L. Binford asked the right questions that needed to be asked at the time, but that he himself was not always the right one to answer those questions. That seems about right to me – and suggests if the apparently more data-oriented S. Binford had been involved longer then some amazing publications might have resulted. It’s an nteresting slice of the history of the discipline.


  9. Sally Binford found her true home at Sandstone Retreat, Topanga Canyon, CA, from 1970 to 1975. My wife, Meg, had been a student of hers at UCLA and our occasional 4-somes at her home in Venice, CA, with the late actor Jeremy Slate were a rollicking delight. Sally, who can be seen in the 1975 documentary “Sandstone” explains it all to you.


  10. Richard Taylor

    One should take Matson’s observations about Binford with a grain(or two) of salt. I entered the UNM grad program in the Fall of 1971 and became quite close to Lew and his wife, Mary Ann(now deceased) while I was there. The native Southwestern archaeologists, led by Jim Judge, were vehemently opposed to Lew and his attractiveness to students. It was a very difficult environment for grad students because of the poisonous politics in the department, for a Binford student, it was prudent to avoid taking some classes because of bias. Not a problem for those who were studying SW archaeology, because there weren’t very many( if any), everyone wanting to do this was at Arizona or Arizona State. I guess I must have only been 6 foot at the time because Lew was as tall as me(I am now 6’2″) When I first saw Lew it was after a summer in Alaska and he was incredibly fit. As to the stories about the drinking and drugs, these are surprising to me as I saw no evidence of this during my six years at UNM. What I saw was a devoted husband(later crushed by the sudden and too early death of Mary Ann) and a very productive scholar(Nunamuit Ethnoarchaeology, a slew of articles, collected in Working at Archaeology).


  11. Lewis Binford died April 11, 2011. I ask that, out of compassion for his family and friends, this book excerpt from Sally Binford’s interview detailing his unfortunate liaison with her be removed from the internet. Let them both rest in peace.


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