V. Gordon Childe

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jan 15, 2023

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Vere Gordon Childe or V. Gordon Childe (14 April 1892 Sydney, New South Wales, Australia - 19 October 1957 Mount Victoria, New South Wales, Australia) was an Australian archaeologist and linguist who specialised in the study of European prehistory. As a socialist, Childe embraced the socio-economic theory of Marxism and was an early, if unconventional, proponent of Marxist archaeology. Childe spent most of his life in an academic career in the UK, first at the University of Edinburgh and later in the Department of Archaeology at University College London in London. He wrote numerous groundbreaking works on archaeology and prehistory, most famously Man Makes Himself (1936) and What happened in History (1942).

From 1927 to 1946, Childe was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. During this time he was responsible for the excavations of the Neolithic Skara Brae habitation and the Maeshowe burial chamber on the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland. Childe was one of the founders of The Prehistoric Society and also served as its President. In 1947 he became Director of the Institute of Archaeology, a post he held until his retirement in 1957. In the same year, Childe committed suicide by jumping off a cliff near his birthplace in the Blue Mountains of Australia.

Childe is considered one of the most important archaeologists and prehistorians of his time. Using local research, he was able to create a broader synthesis of Middle Eastern and European prehistory. Childe is also remembered for his Marxist-oriented ideas on the development of society, such as the Neolithic Revolution and the Urban Revolution.

Childe was a theorist who combined the findings of archaeological research. He wrote in particular about the spread of agriculture and urbanisation in Europe in The Dawn of European Civilization (1925) and Man Makes Himself (1936). According to current knowledge, agriculture developed independently in many places on the planet. From the Middle East, agricultural skills arrived in Europe around 7000 BC. In Crete - 6500 BC (the first signs of agriculture in the British Isles, for example, date from 4500-4000 BC).

V. Gordon Childe was born in 1892 in Sydney, Australia, into a middle-class family. His father Stephen Childe studied at Sydney University before moving to Britain, where he studied at Oxford University and worked as a teacher in various jobs throughout the UK. In 1871 Stephen married Mary Ellen Latcford. The family moved back to Australia in 1878. After the death of his first wife, Stephen Childe married Harriet Elisa Gordon in 1886. V. Gordon Childe was born of this marriage and grew up on the family farm at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

Universities of Sydney and Oxford: 1911-1917

Childe began studying antiquities at the University of Sydney in 1911. During his studies, he was introduced to classical archaeology through the works of renowned archaeologists Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans. While at university, he also became politically active and became interested in socialism and Marxism. He became acquainted with the works of Marxist theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as the Marxist-influenced theories of philosopher Hegel. Childe graduated from university in 1914 and received numerous honours and awards.

The £200 scholarship enabled Childe to continue her studies at Queen's College, Oxford University in the UK that same year. Childe studied classical archaeology and linguistics under John Beazley and Arthur Evans, among others. In 1915, he published his first academic article, 'On the Date and Origin of Minyan Ware', which appeared in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. In 1916, he completed his thesis, The Influence of Indo-Europeans in Prehistoric Greece, which reflected his interest in combining philological and archaeological evidence.

At Oxford, Childe was active in the socialist student movement, which opposed the conservative-right university administration. His best friend at the time was Rajani Palme Dutt, an Indian-Swede who later became known as an active communist politician. During the First World War, Childe campaigned actively on behalf of conscientious objectors sentenced to prison. However, Childe himself was never called up for military service, probably because of his poor health and poor eyesight.

Early career in Australia: 1918-1921

After three years of study, Childe returned to Australia in 1917. He worked briefly as a Latin teacher at Maryborough in Queensland, but soon moved to St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, after taking up a post there. In Sydney, Childe re-entered the Australian socialist movement and became active in anti-conscription activities. In 1918, he was one of the speakers at a strongly socialist International Peace Conference which directly opposed the Australian government's plans to introduce universal conscription for men. However, news of Childe's participation in the conference came to the attention of the university, and he was pressured to resign from his post at the university to prevent his socialist ideas from spreading among the students.

With his academic career thus ended, Childe decided to seek work in the socialist movement. In August 1919, he became secretary and speechwriter to Australian Labor Party politician John Storey. After the party won the New South Wales state election in 1920, Storey became state premier. Working for the Labor Party gave Childe a good insight into the party's structure and history but proved disappointing. For Childe, the Labour Party in political power betrayed socialist ideals and slid towards the centre and capitalism. Childe's political views moved increasingly to the left and he joined the revolutionary and anti-capitalist Industrial Workers of the World, which was banned in Australia. In 1921 Storey sent Childe to London to act as a state correspondent for the British press. In December that year, however, Storey died, and a few days later the state elections returned power to the right. The new Prime Minister George Fuller declared Childe's work in Britain redundant, and in early 1922 his employment ended.

The London era and the first books: 1922-1926

After realising he would not be able to find academic work in Australia, Childe decided to stay in London. Finding it difficult to get a job at first, he spent a lot of time studying at the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute Library. He also became an active member of the London socialist movement, where he met other left-wing activists such as Ramsay MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, H. G. Wells, H. N. Brailsford, Elsa Lanchester and Rose Macauley. Childe also established links with the British Communist Party and wrote for the party's Labour Monthly.

Childe had gained a reputation as an "exceptional prehistoric researcher", and he began to receive invitations to travel to other parts of Europe to study prehistoric artefacts. In 1922, he travelled to places such as Vienna, Austria, where, at the Natural History Museum, he studied previously unexplored painted Neolithic pottery from Schipenitz in Bukovina (now in Ukraine). His findings were published the following year in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. On his return to London, Childe was recruited as an assistant to three centre-left Liberal Party MPs. Childe, who has a talent for languages, earned additional income by doing translations for Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co and occasionally lecturing on prehistory at the London School of Economics.

Childe's first book, How Labour Governs, was published in 1923 by the London Labour Company and examined the Australian Labour Party and its relationship with the Australian labour movement. Childe believed that elected socialists rejected socialist ideals and sought personal gain. Sally Green (1981), the author of Childe's biography, has argued that the work was of particular significance at the time because it was published at a time when the British Labor Party was becoming a major player in British politics and was threatening the dominance of the two former ruling parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. In 1924, Labour came to power in Britain for the first time.

In 1923, Childe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In the same year he travelled to Lausanne, Bern and Zurich to study prehistoric material. In 1925, the Institute offered him a position as its librarian, which enabled him to strengthen his links with researchers throughout Europe. At the same time, he became acquainted with most of Britain's relatively small archaeological community. He became friends with another Marxist archaeologist, O. G. S. Crawford, among others.

In 1925, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co published Childe's second book, The Dawn of European Civilisation, in which he brought together years of research on European prehistory. The publication was quite remarkable in its day because it provided a broader picture of European prehistory, when most archaeologists were concentrating on local history. The work also introduced the new concept of 'archaeological culture' in Britain and guided the development of the discipline towards cultural-historical archaeology. Childe's next work, The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins, was published in 1926, in which he theorised the spread of civilisation to Europe from the Middle East via the Indo-European language group known as the Aryans. Childe later avoided mentioning his book after the National Socialists adopted the term 'Aryan' in racial contexts. In the above-mentioned works, Childe accepted a moderate diffusionism, according to which most cultural traits spread from one community to another, and it was also possible that the same cultural traits could develop independently in different places. This theory contrasted with Grafton Elliot Smith's theory of hyperdiffusionism, which held that all similar cultural traits had the same origin.

Professor of Archaeology in Edinburgh 1927-1946

In 1927, Childe was offered a newly created post as Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. The post was named after Lord John Abercromby, a well-known Scottish prehistorian. At the age of 35, Mr Childe became the only academic prehistory teacher in Scotland. He was considered by many Scottish archaeologists to be an outsider with no local knowledge of Scottish prehistory. Despite the climate of hostility and jealousy, Childe also found many friends in Edinburgh, including Sir W. Lindsay Scott, Alexander Curle, J. G. Callender, Walter Grant and Charles G. Darwin. Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandson) became a particularly good friend of Childe and Childe became godfather to his youngest son.

At the University of Edinburgh, Childe focused on research. He is said to have been very kind to his students, but he had difficulty performing in public. Childe reformed the teaching of prehistory, starting with the Iron Age and working backwards chronologically to the Palaeolithic period, but many students found this confusing. Childe also set up an archaeological society in Edinburgh (the Edinburgh League of Prehistorians), through which he involved his most enthusiastic students in excavations and invited visiting lecturers to the city. Childe was an early proponent of experimental archaeology, which was reflected in his teaching. For example, in 1937 he conducted experiments to better understand the glazing technique used in the Iron Age at several forts in northern Britain.

Childe regularly visited London to see old friends. Among his most famous friends was the influential British archaeologist Stuart Piggott, who later succeeded Childe as professor in Edinburgh. Together they were instrumental in the transformation of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia into the national Prehistoric Society in 1935. Childe was elected as the Society's first President.

Childe regularly attended conferences all over Europe and was fluent in several languages. In 1935 he visited the Soviet Union for the first time, spending 12 days in Leningrad and Moscow. He was greatly impressed by the socialist state and was particularly interested in Soviet archaeology.

On his return to Britain, he became a vocal advocate of the Soviet Union, although he was highly critical of some of the Soviet government's policies, particularly its Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany. A staunch socialist, Childe was an early dissociator from the fascist movements in Europe. He was particularly outraged by the Nazis' use of prehistory to emphasise their Aryan racial background. Childe supported the British government's decision to fight the fascists in World War II and was determined to commit suicide if the Nazis invaded Britain. Although Childe opposed the German and Italian fascists, he was also critical of the imperialist and capitalist governments in Britain and the United States. The latter he often described as being full of 'disgusting fascist cowards'.

Childe's position at the university also required him to do archaeological excavations, which he hated and also believed he was doing badly. His students found this to be true, but on the other hand Childe was considered a 'genius at interpreting finds'. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he conscientiously recorded his findings and regularly wrote articles about them in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Childe's most famous excavations were carried out between 1927 and 1930 at Skara Brae in Orkney, where he led an investigation of a well-preserved Neolithic village. He published the results of his excavations in 1931 in Skara Brae. In 1932, in collaboration with the anthropologist C. Daryll Forde, Childe excavated two Iron Age hill forts at Earn's Hugh on the Berwickshire coast. In June 1935 he led the excavation of the Larriban peninsula fort near Knocksoghey in Northern Ireland. Together with Wallace Thorneycroft, Childe investigated glazed Iron Age forts at Finavon (1933-1934) and Rahoyn (1936-1937) in Scotland.

Alongside his university work, Childe continued his research on European prehistory, which followed on from his earlier publications. In 1928, The Most Ancient Near East was published, describing the spread of agriculture and other inventions to Europe and their connection with Mesopotamia and India. In 1929, The Danube in Prehistory, a survey of the prehistory of the Danube, was published, which argued that the Danube created a natural border between the Middle East and Europe. Childe believed that it was through the Danube that innovation spread westwards in prehistory. A significant feature of the work was the concept of 'archaeological culture', which Childe adopted from Germany and which revolutionised theoretical thinking in British archaeology.

Childe's next work, The Bronze Age, was published in 1930 and dealt with the Bronze Age in Europe from the perspective of Marxist social theory. In the years that followed, Childe continued his busy literary output. The Forest Cultures of Northern Europe: A Study in Evolution and Diffusion appeared in 1931, The Continental Affinities of British Neolithic Pottery in 1932 and Neolithic Settlement in the West of Scotland in 1934.

In 1933, Childe travelled to Iraq and India, where he visited several archaeological sites. During his travels, he found his earlier work on the Middle East, The Most Ancient Near East, to be out of date and published New Light on the Most Ancient Near East in 1935. In this work he drew Marxist-influenced conclusions about economic development. In the same year he published Prehistory of Scotland.

One of the most important works of Childe's career was Man Makes Himself, published in 1936. In line with the Marxist view of history, Childe argued that the traditional division between prehistory (unwritten history) and history (written history) was false and that society had developed through a series of technological, economic and social revolutions. These included the Neolithic Revolution, in which hunter-gatherers began to settle in permanent, land-growing communities; the Urban Revolution, in which villages became the first towns; and the Industrial Revolution, which decisively changed the nature of production.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Childe was unable to travel across continental Europe, so he concentrated on researching the prehistory of the British Isles. In 1940 he published Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles. Childe's pessimism about the outcome of the war led him to believe that European civilisation - both capitalism and Stalinism - was heading inexorably towards a dark age. It was in these moods that in 1942 he wrote the sequel to Man Makes Himself, What Happened in History, a summary of human history from the Neolithic period to the collapse of the Roman Empire. At Childe's request, it was published by Penguin Books, which allowed it to be sold at a lower price. In this way, Childe believed that information could be disseminated to the common people. During the war, in 1944, there appeared a further short work, Progress and Archaeology, and a fully Marxist work, The Story of Tools, aimed at the Communist Youth League.

Institute of Archaeology, London: 1946-1956

In 1946, Childe moved to London, where he became Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Professor of European Prehistory. To secure his appointment, Childe had avoided criticising the government policies he disapproved of. The Institute of Archaeology had been founded in 1937 by the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, but until 1946 its activities were mainly based on volunteer lecturers.

Childe was well liked by the students, although he was not considered a particularly good lecturer. However, as a tutor and seminar leader, he was good at interacting with students on a more individual basis. His popularity is reflected in a bust of Marjorie Maitland-Howard donated to the Institute by students. As director of the Institute, Childe was not obliged to participate in archaeological excavations. He did, however, lead the investigation of the Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe from 1954 to 1955.

While at the Institute, Childe continued to write publications on archaeology and prehistory. In History, a Marxist concept of history, published in 1947, Childe stressed that prehistoric and historic time must be considered as a single entity. In Prehistoric Migrations (1950) he presented his views on moderate diffusionism. In 1946, Childe published an article in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology entitled 'Archaeology and Anthropology', in which he called for the two disciplines, archaeology and anthropology, to work together in the study of prehistory. This view was later widely adopted in research, years after Childe's death. In 1956, Childe was awarded the Society of Antiquaries' Gold Medal for services to archaeology.

In 1952, a group of British Marxist historians began publishing the journal Past & Present. Childe also joined the editorial board. He also became a member of the board of The Modern Quarterly (later The Marxist Quarterly) in the early 1950s. The defeat of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 was a disappointment for the Marxist Childe. Soviet intervention in the country alienated Child from Stalin's regime, but did not alienate his faith in socialism and Marxist theory. He also maintained his cultural links with the Soviet Union through his organisational activities until his death.

Pension and death

In the summer of 1956, Childe retired from his post as Director of the Institute of Archaeology a year early. On his retirement he told several friends that he intended to return to Australia to see relatives and then commit suicide. Childe said he feared ageing and becoming a burden on society. He also suspected he had cancer.

After donating all his possessions and most of his library to the Institute of Archaeology, Childe returned to Australia in April 1957. The University of Sydney, where he had previously been barred from working, awarded him an honorary doctorate. For six months he toured Australia visiting relatives and old friends. He gave several lectures to archaeologists and leftists and also criticised the reactionary and uneducated nature of Australian society. He also criticised the racist attitude of Australian intellectuals towards the country's indigenous population.

On October 19, 1957, Childe went for a walk at Bridal Veil Falls near his childhood home in the Blue Mountains. He had left his hat, goggles and compass on a cliff, from which he fell 1,000 feet to his death. According to the coroner's death certificate, the fall was accidental, but in a letter that later came to light, Childe revealed that he was planning to commit suicide.


  1. V. Gordon Childe
  2. Vere Gordon Childe
  3. ^ Trigger 1980, p. 9; Green 1981, p. 1.
  4. ^ Green 1981, p. 1.
  5. ^ Trigger 1980, p. 32; Green 1981, pp. 3–4.
  6. ^ Trigger 1980, p. 32; Green 1981, p. 4.
  7. ^ a b Green 1981, p. 5.
  8. Green 1981, s. xix.
  9. Lasse Berg: Kalaharin aamunkoitto s. 217-220. Into Kustannus 2012
  10. Green 1981, s. 1.
  11. ^ Bill Bryson, Breve storia della vita privata, Guanda, 2011 [2010], pp. 40-41, ISBN 978-88-6088-415-2.
  12. ^ Antiquity, 1980, pp. 3-5.
  13. ^ Antiquity, 1958, pp. 69-74.
  14. Enciclopédia Larousse. 5. Temas e Debates Lda e Larousse/VUEF. 2007. p. 1668. 978-972-759-925-7
  15. Green, Sally (1981). Prehistorian: A Biography of V. Gordon Childe. Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire: Moonraker Press, p. 64.
  16. BARTON, H.U.W. "In Memoriam V. Gordon Childe." Antiquity, 74.286 (2000), p. 769.
  17. Green, S. op. cit., p. 79.
  18. Faulkner, op. cit., p. 100.

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