V. Gordon Childe
|V. Gordon Childe|
Vere Gordon Childe in the 1930s
|Born||Vere Gordon Childe
14 April 1892
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
|Died||19 October 1957
Blackheath, New South Wales, Australia
|Known for||Excavating Skara Brae
Marxist archaeological theory
Vere Gordon Childe (14 April 1892 – 19 October 1957), better known as V. Gordon Childe, was an Australian archaeologist and philologist who specialized in the study of European prehistory. Working most of his life as an academic in the United Kingdom for the University of Edinburgh and then the Institute of Archaeology, London, he wrote twenty-six books and was an early proponent of culture-historical archaeology and Marxist archaeology.
Born in Sydney, New South Wales to a middle-class family of English descent, Childe studied Classics at the University of Sydney before moving to England to study Classical archaeology at the University of Oxford. Here, he embraced the socialist movement and campaigned against the First World War, viewing it as a conflict waged by competing imperialists to the detriment of Europe's working class. Returning to Australia in 1917, he was prevented from working in academia because of his socialist activism, instead working for the Australian Labor Party as the private secretary of politician John Storey. Growing critical of Labor, he authored an analysis of their policies and joined the far-left Industrial Workers of the World. Emigrating to London in 1921, he became librarian of the Royal Anthropological Institute and continued his research into European prehistory through various journeys across the continent, publishing his findings in academic papers and books. In doing so he introduced the continental European concept of an archaeological culture to the British archaeological community.
From 1927 through to 1946 he worked as the Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, and then from 1947 to 1957 as director of the Institute of Archaeology, London. During this period he oversaw excavation of a number of archaeological sites in Scotland and Northern Ireland, focusing in particular on the society of Neolithic Orkney by excavating the settlement of Skara Brae and the chambered tombs of Maeshowe and Quoyness. Throughout, he continued to publish prolifically, producing excavation reports, journal articles, and books. With Stuart Piggott and Grahame Clark he co-founded The Prehistoric Society in 1934, becoming its first president. Remaining committed to his socialist ideals, he embraced Marxism, and used Marxist ideas as an interpretative framework for archaeological data. He also became a noted sympathiser with the Soviet Union and visited the country on a number of occasions, although grew sceptical of Soviet foreign policy following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. His beliefs resulted in him being legally barred from entering the United States, despite being repeatedly invited to lecture there. Upon retirement, he returned to Australia's Blue Mountains, there committing suicide.
Widely regarded as one of the most important archaeologists and prehistorians of his generation, he became known as the "great synthesizer" for his work in synthesizing regional research into a broader picture of Near Eastern and European prehistory. He was also renowned for his emphasis on the role of revolutionary technological and economic developments in human society, such as the Neolithic Revolution and the Urban Revolution, in this manner being influenced by Marxist ideas on societal development.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Later life
- 3 Archaeological methodology and theory
- 4 Personal life
- 5 Legacy and influence
- 6 Bibliography
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
Childe was born on 14 April 1892 in Sydney, New South Wales. He was the only surviving child of the Reverend Stephen Henry (1844–1923) and Harriet Eliza Childe (1853–1910), a middle-class couple of English descent. Stephen Childe was a second-generation Anglican priest, ordained into the Church of England in 1867 after gaining a BA from the University of Cambridge. Becoming a teacher, in 1871 he married Mary Ellen Latchford, together having five children. They moved to Australia in 1878. It was here that Mary died, and in 1886 Stephen married Harriet, an Englishwoman from a wealthy background who had moved to Australia as a child. Gordon Childe was raised alongside five half-siblings at his father's palatial country house, the Chalet Fontenelle, in the township of Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Reverend Childe worked as the minister for St. Thomas' Parish, but proved unpopular, arguing with his congregation and taking unscheduled holidays.
A sickly child, Gordon Childe was educated at home for a number of years, before gaining a private school education in North Sydney. In 1907, he began attending Sydney Church of England Grammar School, gaining his Junior Matriculation in 1909 and Senior Matriculation in 1910. At school he studied ancient history, French, Greek, Latin, geometry, algebra and trigonometry, achieving good marks in all subjects, but was bullied because of his strange appearance and unathletic physique. In July 1910 his mother died; his father soon took Monica Gardiner as his third wife. Childe's relationship with his father was strained, particularly following his mother's death, and they disagreed on the subject of religion and politics, with the Reverend being a devout Christian and conservative while his son was an atheist and socialist.
University in Sydney and Oxford: 1911–1917
Childe studied for a degree in Classics at the University of Sydney in 1911; although focusing on the study of written sources, he first came across classical archaeology through the works of archaeologists Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans. At university, he became an active member of the Debating Society, at one point arguing in favour of the proposition that "socialism is desirable". Increasingly interested in socialism, he read the works of Marxism's founders Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as those of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose ideas on dialectics heavily influenced Marxist theory. Also while there, he became a great friend of fellow undergraduate Herbert Vere Evatt, with whom he remained in contact throughout his life. Ending his studies in 1913, Childe graduated the following year with various honours and prizes, including Professor Francis Anderson's prize for Philosophy.
Wishing to continue his education, he gained a £200 Cooper Graduate Scholarship in Classics, allowing him to afford the tuition fees at Queen's College, a part of the University of Oxford, England. He set sail for Britain aboard the SS Orsova in August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. At Queen's, Childe was entered for a diploma in classical archaeology followed by a Literae Humaniores degree, although he never completed the former. Whilst there, he studied under John Beazley and Arthur Evans, the latter acting as Childe's supervisor. In 1915, he published his first academic paper, "On the Date and Origin of Minyan Ware", which appeared in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, and the following year produced his B.Litt. thesis, "The Influence of Indo-Europeans in Prehistoric Greece", displaying his interest in combining philological and archaeological evidence.
At Oxford he became actively involved with the socialist movement, antagonising the conservative university authorities. Becoming a noted member of the left-wing reformist Oxford University Fabian Society, then at the height of its power and membership, he was there in 1915 when it changed its name to the Oxford University Socialist Society, following a split from the Fabian Society. His best friend and flatmate was Rajani Palme Dutt, a British citizen born to an Indian father and Swedish mother, who was a fervent socialist and Marxist. The two often got drunk and tested each other's knowledge about classical history late at night. With Britain in the midst of World War I, many socialists refused to fight for the British Army despite the government imposed conscription. They believed that the war was being waged in the interests of the ruling classes of the European imperialist nations at the expense of the working classes, and that class war was the only conflict that they should be concerned with. Dutt was imprisoned for refusing to fight, and Childe campaigned for his release and the release of other socialists and pacifist conscientious objectors. Childe was never required to enlist in the army, most likely because of his poor health and eyesight. The authorities were concerned by his anti-war sentiments; the intelligence agency MI5 opening a file on him, his mail was intercepted, and he was kept under observation.
Early career in Australia: 1918–1921
Childe returned to Australia in August 1917, and being a known socialist agitator, he was soon placed under surveillance by the security services, who intercepted all of his mail. In 1918 he took up the post of Senior Resident Tutor at St Andrew's College, Sydney University, getting involved in Sydney's socialist and anti-conscription movement. In Easter 1918 he spoke at the Third Inter-State Peace Conference, an event organised by the Australian Union of Democratic Control for the Avoidance of War, a group opposed to the plans by Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the centre-right Nationalist Party of Australia to introduce conscription. The conference had a prominent socialist emphasis, and its report argued that the best hope for the end to international war was the "abolition of the Capitalist System". News of Childe's participation reached the Principal of St Andrew's College. Under pressure from the university authorities, he forced Childe to resign despite much opposition from staff.
With his good academic reputation, several staff members provided him with work as a tutor in Ancient History in the Department of Tutorial Classes, but he was prevented from doing so by the Chancellor of the University, Sir William Cullen, who feared that Childe would propagate socialism to students. This infringement of Childe's civil rights was condemned in the leftist community, and the issue was brought up in the Parliament of Australia by centre-left politicians William McKell and T.J. Smith. Moving to Maryborough, Queensland, in October 1918 Childe took up employment teaching Latin at the Maryborough Grammar School. Here too his political affiliations became known, and he was subject to an opposition campaign from local conservative groups and the Maryborough Chronicle, resulting in abuse from disobedient pupils. He soon resigned.
Realising that an academic career would be barred from him by the right wing university authorities, Childe turned to getting a job within the leftist movement. In August 1919, he became private secretary and speech writer to politician John Storey, a prominent member of the centre-left Australian Labor Party then in opposition to New South Wales' Nationalist government. Representing the Sydney suburb of Balmain on the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, Storey became state premier in 1920 when Labor achieved an electoral victory there. Working within the Labor Party allowed Childe to gain an "unrivalled grasp of its structure and history", enabling him to write a book on the subject, How Labour Governs (1923). The greater his involvement, the more Childe became critical of Labor, believing that they betrayed their socialist ideals once they gained political power and moved to a centrist, pro-capitalist stance. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, which in Australia served mostly as a centre of radical labourers within existing unions, and at the time was banned by the government as a political threat. In 1921 Childe was sent to London by Storey, in order to keep the British press updated about developments in New South Wales, but in December Storey died, and a few days later the New South Wales elections restored a Nationalist government under the premiership of George Fuller. Fuller thought Childe's job unnecessary, and in early 1922 terminated his employment.
London and early books: 1922–1926
Unable to find an academic job in Australia, Childe remained in Britain, renting a room in Bloomsbury, Central London, and spending much time studying at the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute library. An active member of the London socialist movement, he associated with leftists at the 1917 Club in Gerrard Street, Soho, and befriended members of the Marxist Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), contributing to their publication, Labour Monthly; however he had not yet openly embraced Marxism. Having earned a reputation as an excellent prehistorian, he was invited to other parts of Europe in order to study prehistoric artefacts. In 1922 he travelled to Vienna, Austria to examine unpublished material about the painted Neolithic pottery from Schipenitz, Bukovina held in the Prehistoric Department of the Natural History Museum; he published his findings in the 1923 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Childe used this excursion to visit a number of museums in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, bringing them to the attention of British archaeologists in a 1922 article published in Man. Returning to London, in 1922 Childe became a private secretary for three Members of Parliament, including John Hope Simpson and Frank Gray, both members of the centre-left Liberal Party. Supplementing this income, Childe worked as a translator for the publishers Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co and occasionally lectured in prehistory at the London School of Economics.
In 1923 his first book, How Labour Governs, was published by the London Labour Company. Examining the Australian Labor Party and its wider connection with the Australian labour movement, it reflect Childe's disillusionment with the party, believing that the politicians that it managed to get elected had abandoned their socialist ideals in favour of personal comfort. Childe's biographer Sally Green noted that How Labour Governs was of particular significance at the time because it was published just as the British Labour Party was emerging as a major player in British politics, threatening the two-party dominance of the Conservatives and Liberals; in 1924 they were elected to power. Childe had planned a sequel expanding on his ideas, but it was never published.
In May 1923 he visited continental Europe, journeying to the museums in Lausanne, Bern and Zürich to study their prehistoric artefact collections; that year he became a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In 1925, the Institute offered him one of the only archaeological jobs then available in Britain, and he became their librarian, in doing so cementing connections with scholars across Europe. This job meant that he came into contact with many of Britain's archaeologists, of whom there were relatively few during the 1920s; he developed a great friendship with O. G. S. Crawford, the Archaeological Officer to the Ordnance Survey, influencing the latter's move toward socialism and Marxism.
In 1925, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co published Childe's second book, The Dawn of European Civilisation, in which he synthesised the varied data about European prehistory that he had been exploring for many years. An important work, it was released when the few archaeologists across Europe were amateur and focused purely on studying their locality; The Dawn was a rare example that looked at the larger picture across the continent. Its importance was also due to the fact that it introduced the concept of the archaeological culture into Britain from continental scholarship, thereby aiding in the development of culture-historical archaeology. Childe later stated that the book "aimed at distilling from archaeological remains a preliterate substitute for the conventional politico-military history with cultures, instead of statesmen, as actors, and migrations in place of battles." In 1926 he published a successor, The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins, exploring the theory that civilisation diffused northward and westward into Europe from the Near East via an Indo-European linguistic group known as the Aryans; with the ensuing racial use of the term "Aryan" by the German Nazi Party, Childe avoided mention of the book. In these works, Childe accepted a moderate diffusionism, believing that although most cultural traits spread from one society to another, it was possible for the same traits to develop independently in different places, a theory at odds with the hyper-diffusionism of Sir Grafton Elliot Smith.
Abercromby Professor of Archaeology: 1927–1946
In 1927, Childe was offered the newly created post of Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at Scotland's University of Edinburgh (at what is now the School of History, Classics and Archaeology), established by deed poll in the bequest of prehistorian Lord John Abercromby. Although sad at leaving London, Childe took the prestigious position, moving to Edinburgh in September 1927. Aged 35, Childe became the "only academic prehistorian in a teaching post in Scotland", and was disliked by many Scottish archaeologists, who viewed him as an outsider with no specialism in Scottish prehistory; this hostility intensified, and he wrote to a friend, remarking that "I live here in an atmosphere of hatred and envy." He nevertheless made friends in Edinburgh, including Sir W. Lindsay Scott, Alexander Curle, J.G. Callender, Walter Grant and Charles Galton Darwin, becoming godfather to the latter's youngest son. Initially lodging at Liberton, he moved into the semi-residential Hotel de Vere in Eglington Crescent.
At Edinburgh University, Childe focused on research, and although reportedly very kind towards his students, had difficulty speaking to large audiences; he organised the BSc degree course so that it began studying the Iron Age, progressing chronologically backward to the Palaeolithic, confusing many students. Founding the Edinburgh League of Prehistorians, he took his more enthusiastic students on excavations and invited guest lecturers to visit. Involving them in experimental archaeology, of which he was an early proponent, in 1937 he performed experiments to understand the vitrification process that had occurred at several Iron Age forts in northern Britain.
Regularly travelling to London to visit friends, one notable comrade was Stuart Piggott, another influential British archaeologist who succeeded Childe as Abercromby Professor at Edinburgh. The duo, along with Grahame Clark, were elected onto the committee of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia, in 1934 using their influence to convert it into a nationwide organisation, the Prehistoric Society, of which Childe was elected president.
Often attending conferences across Europe, Childe became fluent in several languages, and in 1935 first visited the Soviet Union, spending 12 days in Leningrad and Moscow; impressed with the socialist state, he was particularly interested in the role of Soviet archaeology. Returning to Britain, he became a vocal Soviet sympathiser who avidly read the CPGB's Daily Worker, although he was heavily critical of certain Soviet government policies, in particular the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. His socialist convictions led to an early denunciation of European fascism, and he was outraged by the Nazi co-option of prehistoric archaeology to glorify their own conceptions of an Aryan racial heritage. Supportive of the British government's decision to fight the fascist powers in the Second World War, he made the decision to commit suicide should the Nazis conquer Britain. Though opposing fascist Germany and Italy, he also criticised the imperialist, capitalist governments of the United Kingdom and United States: he often described the latter as being full of "loathsome fascist hyenas". Nevertheless, in summer 1939 he visited the U.S., lecturing at the University of Harvard, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Pennsylvania.
Childe's university position meant that he was obliged to undertake archaeological excavations, something he loathed and believed that he did poorly. Students agreed, but recognised his "genius for interpreting evidence". Unlike many contemporaries, he was scrupulous with writing up and publishing his findings, producing almost annual reports for the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, unusually ensuring that he acknowledged the help of every digger.
His best known excavation was undertaken from 1928 to 1930 at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands. Uncovering a well-preserved Neolithic village, in 1931 he published the excavation results in a book titled Skara Brae. He nevertheless made an error of interpretation, erroneously attributing the site to the Iron Age. Getting on particularly well with the locals, it is reported that to them "he was every inch the professor" because of his eccentric appearance and habits. In 1932, Childe, collaborating with anthropologist C. Daryll Forde, excavated two Iron Age hillforts at Earn's Hugh on the Berwickshire coast, while in June 1935 he excavated a promontory fort at Larriban near to Knocksoghey in Northern Ireland. Together with Wallace Thorneycroft, another Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Childe excavated two vitrified Iron Age forts in Scotland, at Finavon, Angus (1933–34) and at Rahoy, Argyllshire (1936–37). In 1938, he and Walter Grant oversaw excavations at the Neolithic settlement of Rinyo; excavation ceased during the Second World War, but resumed in 1946.
Childe continued writing and publishing books on archaeology, beginning with a series of works following on from The Dawn of European Civilisation and The Aryans by compiling and synthesising data from across Europe. First was The Most Ancient Near East (1928), which assembled information from across Mesopotamia and India, setting a background from which the spread of farming and other technologies into Europe could be understood. This was followed by The Danube in Prehistory (1929) which examined the archaeology along the Danube river, recognising it as the natural boundary dividing the Near East from Europe; Childe believed that it was via the Danube that new technologies travelled westward in prehistory. The book introduced the concept of an archaeological culture to Britain from Germany, revolutionising the theoretical approach of British archaeology.
Childe's next work, The Bronze Age (1930), dealt with the titular Bronze Age in Europe, and displayed his increasing acceptance of Marxist theory in understanding how society functioned and changed. He believed that metal was the first indispensable article of commerce, and that metal-smiths were therefore full-time professionals who lived off the social surplus. Within a matter of years he had followed this up with a string of further works: The Forest Cultures of Northern Europe: A Study in Evolution and Diffusion (1931) and The Continental Affinities of British Neolithic Pottery (1932).
In 1933, Childe travelled to Asia, visiting Iraq – a place he thought "great fun" – and India, which he felt was "detestable" due to the hot weather and extreme poverty. Touring archaeological sites in the two countries, he opined that much of what he had written in The Most Ancient Near East was outdated, going on to produce New Light on the Most Ancient Near East (1935), applying his Marxist-influenced ideas about the economy to his conclusions.
After publishing Prehistory of Scotland (1935), Childe produced one of the defining books of his career, Man Makes Himself (1936). Influenced by Marxist views of history, Childe argued that the usual distinction between (pre-literate) prehistory and (literate) history was a false dichotomy and that human society has progressed through a series of technological, economic and social revolutions. These included the Neolithic Revolution, when hunter-gatherers began settling in permanent farming communities, through to the Urban Revolution, when society progressed from a series of small towns through to the first cities, and right up to more recent times, when the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of production.
With the Second World War's outbreak, Childe was unable to travel across Europe, instead focusing on writing Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles (1940). Childe's pessimism surrounding the war's outcome led him to believe that "European Civilization – Capitalist and Stalinist alike – was irrevocably headed for a Dark Age." In this state of mind he produced a sequel to Man Makes Himself titled What Happened in History (1942), a synthesis of human history from the Palaeolithic through to the fall of the Roman Empire. Although Oxford University Press offered to publish the work, he released it through Penguin Books because they could sell it at a cheaper price, something he believed pivotal in providing knowledge for "the masses." This was followed by two short works, Progress and Archaeology (1944) and The Story of Tools (1944), the latter being explicitly Marxist and written for the Young Communist League.
Institute of Archaeology, London: 1946–1956
In 1946, Childe left Edinburgh to take up the position as Director and Professor of European Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology (IOA) in London. Anxious to return to the capital, he had kept silent over his disapproval of government policies so that he would not be prevented from getting the job. He took up residence at Lawn Road Flats near to Hampstead.
Located in St John's Lodge in the Inner Circle of Regent's Park, the IOA was founded in 1937, largely by archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, but until 1946 relied primarily upon volunteer lecturers. Childe's relationship with the conservative Wheeler was strained, the latter being intolerant of the shortcomings of others, something Childe made an effort never to be. He was popular among students, who saw him as a kindly eccentric; they commissioned a bust of Childe from Marjorie Maitland Howard. His lecturing was nevertheless considered poor, as he often mumbled and walked into an adjacent room to find something while continuing to talk. He consistently referred to the socialist states of eastern Europe by their full official titles, and called towns by their Slavonic rather than Germanic names, further confusing his students. He was deemed better at giving tutorials and seminars, where he devoted more time to interacting with his students. As Director, Childe was not obliged to excavate, though he did undertake projects at the Orkney Neolithic burial tombs of Quoyness (1951) and Maes Howe (1954–55).
In 1949 he and O.G.S. Crawford resigned as Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries in protest at the election of James Mann to the Presidency following the retirement of Cyril Fox. They believed that Mann, Keeper of the Tower's Armouries at the Tower of London, was a poor choice and that Wheeler, an actual prehistorian, should have won the election. In 1952 a group of British Marxist historians began publishing the periodical Past & Present, with Childe joining the editorial board. He also became a board member for The Modern Quarterly (later The Marxist Quarterly) during the early 1950s, working alongside old friend, the Communist leader, Rajani Palme Dutt, chairman of the board. He authored occasional articles for Palme Dutt's socialist journal, the Labour Monthly, but disagreed with him over the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; Palme Dutt defended the Soviet Union's decision to quash the revolution using military force, but like many western socialists, Childe strongly disagreed. The event made Childe abandon faith in the Soviet leadership, but not in socialism and Marxism. Childe retained a love of the Soviet Union, having visiting on multiple occasions and having been involved with CPBG satellite body the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, and serving as President of their National History and Archaeology Section from the early 1950s until his death.
In April 1956, Childe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries for his services to archaeology. He was invited to lecture in the U.S. on multiple occasions, by Robert Braidwood, William Duncan Strong, and Leslie White, but was barred from entering the country due to his socialist beliefs. Whilst working at the Institute, Childe continued writing and publishing books dealing with archaeology and prehistory. History (1947) continued his belief that prehistory and literate history must be viewed together, and adopted a Marxist view of history, whilst Prehistoric Migrations (1950) displayed his views on moderate diffusionism. In 1946 he had also published a paper in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, titled "Archaeology and Anthropology" which argued that the two disciplines must be used in tandem, something that would be widely accepted in the decades following his death.
Retirement and death: 1957
In the summer of 1956, Childe retired as IOA Director a year prematurely. European archaeology had rapidly expanded during the 1950s, leading to increasing specialisation and making the synthesising that Childe was known for increasingly difficult. That year, the Institute was moving to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, and Childe wanted to give his successor, W.F. Grimes, a fresh start in the new surroundings. To commemorate his achievements, the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society published a Festschrift edition on the last day of his Directorship containing contributions from friends and colleagues from all over the world, something that touched Childe deeply. Upon his retirement, he told many friends that he planned to return to Australia, visit his relatives, and then commit suicide; he was terrified of becoming old, senile, and a burden on society, and suspected that he had cancer. Subsequent commentators have suggested that a core reason for his suicidal desires was his loss of faith in Marxism following the Hungarian Revolution and Premier Nikita Khrushchev's denouncement of Joseph Stalin, although Bruce Trigger noted that while Childe was critical of the Soviet Union's foreign policy, he never saw the state and Marxism as "synonymous", thereby dismissing this explanation.
Sorting out his affairs, Childe donated most of his library and all of his estate to the Institute. After a holiday visiting archaeological sites in Gibraltar and Spain in February 1957, he sailed to Australia, reaching Sydney on his 65th birthday. Here, the University of Sydney, which had once barred him from working there, awarded him an honorary degree. Travelling around the country for six months, visiting family members and old friends, he was unimpressed by Australian society, believing it reactionary, increasingly suburban and uneducated. Looking into Australian prehistory, he found it a lucrative field for research, and lectured to archaeological and leftist groups on this and other topics, taking to Australian radio to attack academic racism towards Indigenous Australians.
Writing personal letters to many friends, he sent one to Grimes, requesting that it not be opened until 1968. In it, he described how he feared old age, and stated his intention to take his own life, remarking that "Life ends best when one is happy and strong." On 19 October 1957, Childe went to the area of Govett's Leap in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains where he had grown up. Leaving his hat, spectacles, compass, pipe and Mackintosh atop the cliffs, he fell 1000 feet (300 m) to his death. A coroner ruled his death as accidental, although in the 1980s the Grimes letter saw publication, allowing for recognition of his suicide. His remains were cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, and his name added to a small family plaque in the Crematorium Gardens. Following his death, an "unprecedented" level of tributes and memorials were issued by the archaeological community, all testifying to his status as Europe's "greatest prehistorian and a wonderful human being."
Archaeological methodology and theory
Childe has been considered the principal contributor to archaeological methodology in the first part of the 20th century. His theoretical approach blended together Marxism, diffusionism, and functionalism. Childe was critical of the evolutionary archaeology which was dominant during the 19th century. He believed that those archaeologists who adhered to it placed a greater emphasis on artefacts themselves rather than their makers. He recognised flaws in the technological-based three-age system first developed by Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, rejecting its evolutionary chronology that divided prehistory into the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age by noting that many of the world's societies were still effectively Stone Age in their technology. He nevertheless saw it as a useful model for analysing socio-economic development when combined with a Marxist model. He therefore used technological criteria for dividing up prehistory into three ages, but instead used economic criteria for sub-dividing the Stone Age into the Palaeolithic and Neolithic, rejecting the concept of the Mesolithic as useless.
Childe was a proponent of the culture-historical approach to archaeology, coming to be seen as one of its "founders and chief exponents". Culture-historical archaeology revolved around the concept of "culture", which it had adopted from anthropology. This has been seen as "a major turning point in the history of the discipline", allowing archaeologists to look at the past through a spatial dynamic rather than simply a temporal one. Childe adopted the concept of "culture" from German philologist and archaeologist Gustav Kossinna, before using it in three of his books – The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925), The Aryans (1926) and The Most Ancient East (1928) – without defining it. He proceeded to give it a specifically archaeological definition in The Danube in Prehistory (1929). There, he defined a "culture" as being a set of "regularly associated traits" in the material culture – i.e. "pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites, house forms" – that are repeatedly found across a certain area. He stated that in this respect a "culture" was the archaeological equivalent of a "people". Childe's use of the term was non-racial, and he considered a "people" to be a social grouping, not a biological race. He opposed the equation of archaeological cultures with biological races, as various nationalists were doing in Europe at the time, and was a vociferous critic of Nazi uses of archaeology, arguing that the Jewish people were not a distinct biological race but a socio-cultural grouping.
In 1935, he suggested that culture worked as a "living functioning organism", emphasising the adaptive potential of material culture; in this he was influenced by anthropological functionalism. However, by the late 1940s he came to question the utility of "culture" as an archaeological concept, and therefore the validity of the culture-historical approach. McNairn suggested that this was because the term had become popular across the social sciences in reference to all learned modes of behaviour, and not just material culture as Childe had first used it. He accepted that archaeologists defined "cultures" based on a subjective selection of material criteria; this view later came to be widely adopted by archaeologists like Colin Renfrew.
Childe has typically been seen as a Marxist archaeologist, being the first archaeologist in the West to use Marxist theory in his work. McNairn noted that Marxism was "a major intellectual force in Childe's thought", while Trigger stated that Childe identified with Marx's theories "both emotionally and intellectually". Biographer Sally Green noted that Childe's beliefs were "never dogmatic, always idiosyncratic" and "continually changing throughout his life" but that "Marxist views on a model of the past" were accepted by Childe because they offer "a structural analysis of culture in terms of economy, sociology and ideology, and a principle for cultural change through economy." She noted that "Childe's Marxism" often differed from the orthodox Marxism of his contemporaries because he made reference to the original texts of Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels rather than later interpretations and because he was selective in his use of their writings. Similarly, McNairn considered Childe's Marxism to be "an individual interpretation" that differed from "popular or orthodox" conceptions of Marxism.
Marxist archaeology had developed in the Soviet Union in 1929, when young archaeologist Vladislav I. Ravdonikas published a report titled "For a Soviet history of material culture". Criticising the archaeological discipline as inherently bourgeois and therefore anti-socialist, it called for the adoption of a pro-socialist, explicitly Marxist approach to archaeology that was a part of the academic reforms instituted under the administration of Premier Joseph Stalin. Although influenced by Soviet archaeology, Childe maintained a sceptical approach to much of it, disapproving of Soviet archaeologists' tendencies to assume their conclusions in advance of analysing the data, something he recognised as being encouraged by the Soviet government.
Childe was heavily critical of the Marxist trend in Soviet archaeology, based on the theories of Georgian philologist Nicholas Marr, which rejected diffusionism in favour of unilinear evolutionism; instead, Childe saw diffusionism as a key part of historical development. Childe did not publicly air these criticisms of his Soviet colleagues, perhaps so as not to offend his communist friends or to provide support for right-wing archaeologists. Instead, he publicly praised the Soviet system of archaeology and heritage management, contrasting it favourably with that in Britain because it encouraged collaboration rather than competition between archaeologists. After first visiting the country in 1935, he returned in 1945, 1953, and 1956, befriending many Soviet archaeologists, but shortly before his suicide sent a letter to the Soviet archaeological community stating that he was "extremely disappointed" that they had methodologically fallen behind Western Europe and North America.
Other Marxists, such as George Derwent Thomson and Neil Faulkner, have argued that Childe's archaeological work should not correctly be considered Marxist because he failed to take into account the existence of class struggle as an instrument of social change, something which was a core tenet of Marxist thought. While class struggle was not a factor he considered in his archaeological work, Childe did accept that historians and archaeologists typically interpreted the past through their own class interests, and that most of his contemporaries were producing studies with an innate bourgeois agenda. Childe also diverged from orthodox Marxism by not employing dialectics in his methodology. Furthermore, he denied Marxism's ability to predict the future development of human society, and did not consider humanity's development into pure communism to be inevitable, instead opining that society could fossilize or become extinct instead.
The Neolithic and Urban Revolutions
Influenced by Marxism, Childe argued that society experienced widescale changes in relatively short periods of time, citing the Industrial Revolution as a modern example. He first introduced these ideas of "revolutions" in 1935, as part of his functional-economic interpretation of the three-age system. Here, he argued for a "Neolithic Revolution" which initiated the Neolithic era, and also believed that there were others that marked the start of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. However the following year, in Man Makes Himself, he combined these Bronze and Iron Age Revolutions into a singular "Urban Revolution," which corresponded largely to Lewis H. Morgan's concept of "civilization."
For Childe, the Neolithic Revolution was a radical period in which humans – who had formerly been hunter-gatherers – began cultivating plants and breeding animals for food, allowing for greater control of the food supply and population growth. He believed that the Urban Revolution was largely caused by the development of bronze metallurgy, and in a 1950 paper proposed ten traits that he believed were present in the oldest cities: they were larger than earlier settlements, they contained full-time craft specialists, the surplus was collected together to a god or king, they witnessed monumental architecture, there was an unequal distribution of social surplus, writing was invented, the sciences developed, naturalistic art developed, trade with foreign areas increased, and the state organisation was based on residence rather than kinship. Childe also believed that the Urban Revolution had a negative side, in that it led to increased social stratification into classes and the oppression of the majority by a power elite. Childe's concept of "revolutions" were not universally adopted in archaeology, with many believing that the term "revolution" was misleading because the processes of agricultural and urban development were gradual transformations.
Influence on processual and post-processual archaeology
Through his work, Gordon Childe contributed to two of the major theoretical movements in Anglo-American archaeology, processualism and post-processualism. Prominent processual archaeologist Colin Renfrew described him as "one of the fathers of processual thought" due to his "development of economic and social themes in prehistory", an idea echoed by Marxist archaeologist Neil Faulkner. Trigger argued that Childe's work foreshadowed processual thought in two clear ways; first by emphasising the role of change in societal development, and second by adhering to a strictly materialist view of the past. Both of these arose from Childe's Marxist beliefs. However, most American processualists ignored Childe's work, seeing him as particularist and irrelevant in their search for generalised laws of societal behaviour. In keeping with Marxist thought, Childe did not agree that such generalised laws existed, believing that behaviour was conditioned by socio-economic factors and was not universal.
Peter Ucko, who was one of Childe's successors as director of the Institute of Archaeology, highlighted that in his writings, Childe accepted the subjectivity of archaeological interpretation, something which was in stark contrast to the processualists' insistence that archaeological interpretation could be objective. This acceptance of subjectivity led Trigger to comment that Childe was a "prototypical post-processual archaeologist".
Biographer Sally Green found no evidence that Childe ever had a serious relationship with anyone; she assumed him to be heterosexual because she found no evidence of same-sex attraction. He had many friends of both sexes, although remained "awkward and uncouth, without any social graces". He enjoyed interacting and socialising with students, often inviting them to dine with him, despite finding it difficult relating to other humans. He was shy, and often hid his personal feelings. He could speak a number of European languages, having taught himself in early life when he was travelling across much of the continent.
Childe believed that the study of the past could offer guidance for how humans should act in the present and future. A socialist from his undergraduate days, Childe was an atheist and critic of religion, viewing it as a false consciousness based in superstition. In History (1947) he commented that "Magic is a way of making people believe they are going to get what they want, whereas religion is a system for persuading them that they ought to want what they get." Archaeologist Colin Renfrew noted that Childe was liberal minded on social issues, but thought that although Childe deplored racism, he did not entirely escape the pervasive 19th century view on distinct differences between different races.
Childe was fond of driving cars, enjoying the "feeling of power" he got from them. He often told a story about how he had raced at high speed down Piccadilly, London at 3 o'clock in the morning for the sheer enjoyment of it, only to be pulled over by a policeman for such illegal activity. He loved practical jokes, and allegedly kept a halfpenny in his pocket to trick pickpockets. On another occasion he played a joke on the delegates at a Prehistoric Society conference by lecturing them on a theory that the Neolithic monument of Woodhenge had been constructed as an imitation of Stonehenge by a nouveau riche chieftain. Several audience members failed to realise that he was being tongue in cheek.
Childe's other hobbies included walking in the British hillsides, attending classical music concerts, and playing the card game contract bridge. Fond of poetry, his favourite poet was John Keats, although his favourite poems were William Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty" and Robert Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral". He was not particularly interested in reading novels but his favourite was D. H. Lawrence's Kangaroo (1923), a book echoing many of Childe's own feelings about Australia. He was a fan of good quality food and drink, and frequented a number of restaurants. Known for his battered, tatty attire, Childe always wore his wide-brimmed black hat, which he had purchased from a hatter in Jermyn Street, central London, as well as a tie, which was usually red, a colour chosen to symbolise his socialist beliefs. He regularly wore a black Mackintosh raincoat, often carrying it over his arm or draped over his shoulders like a cape. In summer he frequently wore shorts with socks, sock suspenders, and large boots.
Legacy and influence
On his death, Childe was praised by his colleague Stuart Piggott as "the greatest prehistorian in Britain and probably the world". The archaeologist Randall H. McGuire later described him as "probably the best known and most cited archaeologist of the twentieth century", an idea echoed by Bruce Trigger, while Barbara McNairn labelled him "one of the most outstanding and influential figures in the discipline". By 1956, he was cited as the most translated Australian author in history, having seen his books published in such languages as Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Sweden and Turkish. The archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce considered Childe to be "probably the most written about" archaeologist in history, commenting that his books were still "required reading" for those in the discipline in 2005.
Childe is primarily respected for developing a synthesis of European and Near Eastern prehistory at a time when most archaeologists were focused on regional sites and sequences, gaining the moniker of "the Great Synthesizer". Since his death, this framework has been heavily revised following the discovery of radiocarbon dating, while his interpretations have been "largely rejected". Various archaeologists have debated and disagreed over the importance of various different parts of Childe's work. Childe himself believed that his primary contribution to archaeology was in his interpretative frameworks, an analysis supported by Alison Ravetz and Peter Gathercole. Childe's theoretical work had been largely ignored in his lifetime, and remained forgotten in the decades after his death, although would see a resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It remained best known in Latin America, where Marxism remained a core theoretical current in the archaeological community throughout the latter 20th century.
Despite his global influence, Childe's oeuvre was poorly understood in the United States, where his work on European prehistory had never become well known. As a result, in the U.S. he erroneously gained the reputation of being a Near Eastern specialist, where he was regarded by anthropologists as one of the founders of neo-evolutionism, alongside Julian Steward and Leslie White, despite the fact that his approach was "more subtle and nuanced" than theirs. Nevertheless, Bruce Trigger believed that it was an American archaeologist, Robert McCormick Adams, Jr., who did the most to develop Childe's "most innovative ideas" after the latter's death.
Following his death, various articles were published that examined Childe's work from a historical perspective. In 1980, Bruce Trigger published Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology, which studied the influences that extended over Childe's archaeological thought. That year, Barbara McNairn published The Method and Theory of V. Gordon Childe, examining his methodological and theoretical approaches to the discipline. The following year, Sally Green's Prehistorian: A Biography of V. Gordon Childe, was published, in which she described him as "the most eminent and influential scholar of European prehistory in the twentieth century". Peter Gathercole thought the work of Trigger, McNairn and Green to have been "extremely important", while Ruth Tringham considered them part of a "let's-get-to-know-Childe-better" movement, expressing her opinion that they were all worth reading.
In July 1986, a colloquium devoted to Childe's work was held in Mexico City, marking the 50th anniversary of Man Makes Himself's publication. In May 1992, a conference marking his centenary was held at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London, co-sponsored by the Institute and the Prehistoric Society, both organisations that he had formerly headed. The proceedings of the conference were subsequently published in a 1994 volume edited by Institute director David R. Harris, The Archaeology of V. Gordon Childe: Contemporary Perspectives. Harris stated that the book was designed to "demonstrate the dynamic qualities of Childe's thought, the breadth and depth of his scholarship, and the continuing relevance of his work to contemporary issues in archaeology." In 1995, another anthology based on a conference was published. Titled Childe and Australia: Archaeology, Politics and Ideas, it was edited by Peter Gathercole, T.H. Irving, and Gregory Melleuish. Further papers would appear on the subject of Childe in ensuing years, looking at such subjects as his personal correspondences, and final resting place.
Childe is referenced in the American blockbuster film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Directed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the motion picture was the fourth film in the Indiana Jones series that dealt with the eponymous fictional archaeologist and university professor. In the film, Jones is heard advising one of his students that to understand the concept of diffusion he must read the works of Childe.
|How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers' Representation in Australia||1923||The Labour Publishing Company (London)|
|The Dawn of European Civilization||1925||Kegan Paul (London)|
|The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins||1926||Kegan Paul (London)|
|The Most Ancient East: The Oriental Prelude to European Prehistory||1929||Kegan Paul (London)|
|The Danube in Prehistory||1929||Oxford University Press (Oxford)|
|The Bronze Age||1930||Cambridge University Press (Cambridge)|
|Skara Brae: A Pictish Village in Orkney||1931||Kegan Paul (London)|
|The Forest Cultures of Northern Europe: A Study in Evolution and Diffusion||1931||Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (London)|
|The Continental Affinities of British Neolithic Pottery||1932||Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (London)|
|New Light on the Most Ancient East: The Oriental Prelude to European Prehistory||1935||Kegal Paul (London)|
|The Prehistory of Scotland||1935||Kegan Paul (London)|
|Man Makes Himself||1936, slightly revised 1941, 1951||Watts (London)|
|Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles||1940, second edition 1947||Chambers (London)|
|What Happened in History||1942||Penguin Books (Harmondsworth)|
|The Story of Tools||1944||Cobbett (London)|
|Progress and Archaeology||1944||Watts (London)|
|Social Worlds of Knowledge||1949||Oxford University Press (London)|
|Prehistoric Migrations in Europe||1950||Aschehaug (Oslo)|
|Magic, Craftsmanship and Science||1950||Liverpool University Press (Liverpool)|
|Social Evolution||1951||Schuman (New York)|
|Illustrated Guide to Ancient Monuments: Vol. VI Scotland||1952||Her Majesty's Stationery Office (London)|
|Society and Knowledge: The Growth of Human Traditions||1956||Harper (New York)|
|Piecing Together the Past: The Interpretation of Archeological Data||1956||Routledge and Kegan Paul (London)|
|A Short Introduction to Archaeology||1956||Muller (London)|
|The Prehistory of European Society||1958||Penguin (Harmondsworth)|
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