Childe, V. Gordon

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Childe, V. Gordon



Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957) was a scholar whose work commanded appreciation from many publics. Through his book What Happened in History (1942) he personified prehistoric archeology for several generations of college students. For professional archeologists, his masterly synthesis of European prehistory, The Dawn of European Civilization (1925), stated themes that were to pervade anthropological archeology for years to follow; and in The Most Ancient East (1928) he elaborated a view of cultural evolution that has stimulated interpretative archeology and refocused the attention of cultural anthropologists on problems that had characterized the earliest growth of the discipline but were then allocated to the discipline of history.

In the Dawn, Childe dealt the final scientific blow to the already faltering concept of a master Aryan civilization and in its place developed a view of man’s early history that recognizes the infinitely complex nature of the cultural past. He brought to archeology a humanistic appreciation of the achievements of man throughout the reaches of time and clearly tried to deal with culture-historical processes. To this end, Childe explicitly identified himself as an anthropologist and insisted that artifactual remains be treated as the products of human sociocultural behavior. He was not afraid to propose hypotheses based on diffusionist principles, but his was not the ignorant “grand scale” diffusion of Elliot Smith and W. J. Perry. He was well aware of the interconnectedness of social institutions and was especially concerned with the relationship of the technological process and social structure. Childe’s evolutionism was not universalistic; it sought to explain changes and emphasized the uneven tempo of cultural “progress,” a concept he associated with the emergence of civilization.

Childe was probably the last archeologist able to range freely over so much of the world’s early history, although his work was weakened by his lack of familiarity with New World prehistory. He was able to store and classify great quantities of detailed information, and this knowledge may have facilitated his extraordinarily nimble efforts at synthesis. However, his basic orientation to the museum laboratory rather than to field excavation prevented him from appreciating the theoretical significance of the ecological approach to archeological data.

Childe was born in New South Wales, Australia. The son of a pastor, he attended a Church of England grammar school and then the University of Sydney. He accepted a scholarship in classics at Oxford in 1914, completing his B.Litt. thesis, “Indo-European Elements in Prehistoric Greece,” in 1916. His brief first stay in England proved intellectually explosive; he was caught up in a university atmosphere of fervent debate on the political and philosophical issues of the time. At Oxford he roomed with R. Palme Dutt, and the two “pursued [their] arguments on Hegel and Marx far into the night.” His socialist sympathies made him a “friend” of the Soviet Union in the years following the revolution. He returned to Australia and immediately entered politics, joining civil liberties defense groups; in 1919 he became private secretary to the anticonscriptionist Labour leader John Storey, who was to become premier of New South Wales. In 1921 Childe accepted a post at the University of Queensland, but upon his arrival the university terminated the appointment on the grounds that his Marxist beliefs would endanger the school. Six months later, after writing How Labour Governs, a pioneer treatise on the history of trade unionism in Australia, Childe left again for Europe. He traveled widely in central and eastern Europe, finally settling in Britain.

In 1927, following publication of The Dawn of European Civilization, Childe was appointed the first Abercromby professor of prehistoric archeology at the University of Edinburgh. He directed numerous excavations in Scotland and Ireland, including the famous neolithic village at Skara Brae on Orkney, in 1935, 1940, and 1946. He was awarded an honorary doctor of letters by Harvard at the tercentenary celebration of 1936 and the doctor of letters by the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. Childe was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1940 and was appointed director of the London Institute of Archaeology in 1945. He stayed in Britain until 1957, when he returned to Australia and lost his life in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

Throughout his career, Childe searched with intellectual passion for meaningful lessons in history, for vindication of his belief that the progress of man is rational and intelligible (1951, p. 179)— that it is progress in which “no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one; each crest out-tops its last precursor” ([1942] 1960, p. 282). He believed that the Marxist model of history best serves to explain the archeological evidence of man’s past. Childe was strongly individualistic and maintained high standards of objectivity in his work and criticism; with many other intellectuals of the time, he expressed dismay at the rigid and dogmatic institutionalization of Marxism as an obstacle to the development of science.

Dawn of European prehistory . Childe wrote prolifically, albeit repetitively. The Dawn went through six editions, each considerably revised as Childe incorporated new data and asked new questions of his material. The book has been described as “not merely a book of incomparable archaeological erudition but … a new starting-point for pre-historic archaeology” (Daniel 1950, p. 247).

The avowed purpose of the argument presented in the Dawn is to demolish the idea of ex oriente lux, of the supremacy of Oriental civilizations, and to demonstrate the relevance of Europe’s “barbarian” past to the understanding of the unique development of what has come to be called Western civilization. To accomplish this, Childe patiently compiled and compared the “insignificant bits of flint and stone, bronze and baked clay [in which] are revealed the preconditions of our gigantic engines and of the whole mechanical apparatus that constitutes the material basis of modern life” (1925, p. xv). In so doing, Childe evolved methods of classification and archeological exposition that prevailed until the 1960s. He combed masses of published data, including the little-known work of archeologists in eastern Europe, and identified assemblages of associated artifacts as “cultures.” He then attempted to establish, partly on the basis of sequence dating techniques, partly by the intuitive recognition of stylistic similarities—but always with a control for functional equivalence—a relative chronology for the appearance, migrations, and disappearance of these cultures. Much of the work of cultural reconstruction presented in the Dawn has been superseded by the results of the scientifically controlled excavation which has flourished in Europe since the end of World War ii and the use of radiocarbon techniques of dating (for bibliography see Gimbutas 1963, pp. 69–106; Piggott 1965). Especially important has been the way in which the map of prehistoric Europe has been filled in, particularly with regard to the early period of food production and the origins and diffusion of metallurgy. Yet much of this information has been gathered by archeologists seeking to answer the questions Childe posed.

In the Dawn, Childe organized his voluminous materials for two purposes. First, he conceived the “stages” of human cultures as “kinds of economies” ranged chronologically in terms of progress—a progress he defined by criteria of technological efficiency in extracting and distributing the means of subsistence. Second, he broke through the pervasive unitary, or holistic, view of prehistory and discerned the “cycles” of local development and adaptation that made up the European mosaic.

Childe assembled the evidence to answer Gustaf Kossinna and other German archeologists who believed that Europe had been colonized by Indo-Germanic peoples advancing from Scandinavia and Germany into south Russia. He examined the distributional patterns of very specific traits, especially the socketed battle-ax, and dissociated them from the megalithic complex, which he rightly saw to be of multiple origins. Using a careful method of archeological criticism, he formulated a hypothesis that sought the origins of the “peculiar vigour and genius” of the European metal ages in south Russia (1925, p. 151). Recent archeology has elucidated a picture of the Kurgan culture that seems to validate this view of Indo-European expansion (see Gimbutas 1963; Mongait 1955) and, while radiocarbon dates have considerably altered the supposed sequence of earlier cultures, Childe’s culture areas—the Balkan, Mediterranean, Danubian, northern and western European—have largely withstood the test of time.

The food-producing revolution . Childe proposed a developmental prehistory derived in part from the Marxist economic model. He distinguished (1925, p. 1) the Paleolithic from the Neolithic period of prehistory, characterizing the latter as the time when man became the “master of his own food supply through the possession of domestic animals and cultivated plants, and shaking off the shackles of environment by his skill in fashioning tools for tree-felling and carpentry, by organization for co-operative labour, and by the beginnings of commerce.” And he argued against the significance of a “mesolithic” period, claiming that such usage masks the true secondary, or imported, nature of the transition to food production. He repeated and expanded the theme of a food-producing revolution in Man Makes Himself (1936), What Happened in History (1942), and Social Evolution (1951). Thus he categorized the Paleolithic as a time of savagery, wherein man was not fundamentally differentiated in subsistence techniques from other herd animals, displaying superiority in degree rather than kind of dependency on the environment. He acknowledged the brilliance of the very specialized upper paleolithic adaptation to the conditions of the late Pleistocene, but, invoking the index of progress—biological survival in terms of increasing population size and density—he defined (1925, p. 38) the paleolithic failure not simply as resulting from inadequate technology but from an economic contradiction inherent in the balance between the institutions of savagery, including limited, or specialized, technological means, and the environment [seeDomestication, article onthe food-producing revolution].

The urban revolution . In What Happened in History (1942), and in New Light on the Most Ancient East (1928), Childe turned from Europe toward an appreciation of Oriental civilization. The accumulated evidence of much previous excavation provided the basic data from which Childe continued to construct his grand history; he formulated the concept of the second great revolution—the urban revolution—and explored the data in order to reveal the civilizing process. Childe described the urban revolution as a necessary consequence of food production: neolithic barbarism represented a major step in the human struggle for survival, but inherent in the neolithic economy were the pressures of an expanding population, its increasing need for cultivable land and fresh pasturage, and the inevitable resulting competition with hunting and gathering peoples. Neolithic barbarism was rooted in self-contained, largely self-sufficient villages capable of producing limited surpluses but not yet successfully in control of environmental circumstances. For Childe, the resolution of the neolithic contradiction came “when farmers were persuaded or compelled to wring from the soil a surplus above their own domestic requirements, and when this surplus was made available to support new economic classes not directly engaged in producing their own food” ([1942] 1960, p. 69).

The critical advance in the centuries preceding 3000 b.c. was the invention and development of a metallurgical technology; in turn, this produced a fundamental economic reorganization that destroyed the neolithic base and created the conditions of civilization. Childe’s concern with metallurgy is illustrative of his approach to technology as part of a sociocultural system, in this instance an integrative system. Apart from the complex scientific knowledge required for the metallurgical process and the obvious superiority of metal tools—especially when the metal-edged plow was combined with harnessed animal labor—the skills involved required industrial craft specialization and gave rise to a class of metalworkers, freed from food production, who traveled widely, dispersing cultural information. Once introduced into the productive economy, metal tools destroyed neolithic self-sufficiency—trade became a regular feature of the social economy and specialization became a wedge in the familial structure of village society. Metallurgy was “socially expensive” and required greater surpluses of food to supply the needs of those engaged in it.

Childe was not unaware of the new patterns of appropriation and redistribution accompanying the economic changes wrought by this “revolution” and derived the stratification of class society from the concentration of surpluses in the hands of a minority: the kings, nobles, and priests. This stratification and craft specialization, the increasing size of permanent settlements, the construction of monumental public works, writing, and the predictive sciences compose Childe’s “checklist” for civilization, a list much disputed since more recent archeological information has come to light, especially in the New World [seeUrban Revolution; see alsoAdams 1966].

When Childe returned once again to the theme of European civilization (1958), he emphasized the role of an expanding metallurgical industry: the routes of diffusion traveled by artisans and merchants in the search for raw materials (tin and copper) required by the Aegean (Minoan–Mycenaean) markets. He contrasted the despotic, rigidly stratified and frequently theocratic Oriental civilizations with the market-oriented societies of Europe: “An international commercial system linked up a turbulent multitude of tiny political units. All these, whether city-states or tribes, while jealously guarding their autonomy, and at the same time seeking to subjugate one another, had none the less surrendered their economic independence by adopting for essential equipment materials that had to be imported” (1958, p. 172). Childe saw in this contrast the path to the florescence of European science, where creativity fed upon the inducements offered by a supranational economy and profited from the free exchange of knowledge. (See, for other views, Frankfort 1951; Wittfogel 1957.)

Social evolution . His treatment of technological innovation is critical also to Childe’s concept of archeological stages. Childe clearly distinguished a general evolutionary progression in human economic and social life from the homotaxial stages represented by archeologically known cultural sequences. In Social Evolution (1951) Childe explicitly set out to discover, through the comparison of cultures occupying roughly equivalent levels, the regularities of cultural evolution. In order to make this comparison objective, he made it clear that the technological criteria he derived from L. H. Morgan were taxonomic in nature and not processual: “‘evolution’ does not purport to describe the mechanism of cultural change. It is not an account of why cultures change … but of how they change” (1951, p. 14). Thus he recognized “correlations” (ibid., p. 118) between sociopolitical institutions and technicoeconomic stages, but he did not attempt to elicit from these correlations the functionally interrelated institutional structures common to each stage.

Eschewing simple parallelism in evolutionary development, Childe emphasized the phenomena of cultural divergence and convergence, and in so doing he came very close to the recent approach taken by the cultural ecologists. He repeatedly argued in favor of diffusion and assimilation in explaining convergences and partly recognized the differentiation that takes place as societies adapt cultural complexes (such as cultivation and stock breeding) to the requirements of differing environments (ibid., pp. 173–175). However, it was in this regard especially that Childe was hampered in his interpretation by lack of familiarity with the comparative archeological data concerning the origins and unique development of New World cultures and civilizations. [SeeCulture, article oncultural adaptation; Ecology, article Oncultural ecology; Evolution, article onculturalevolution.]

Culture history . In his last works, as in his first, Childe insisted on the cultural interpretation of archeological data, demonstrating with example upon example the crucial methodology of inference. He invoked ethnographical interpretations to clarify obscurities in material remains (his 1934 report on the site of Skara Brae is an excellent illustration), although he was aware of the dangers involved in equating archeological “cultures” with the ethnographer’s “tribes”: he admitted the limited nature of archeological assemblages, but because he conceived of artifacts not only as type fossils but as reflections of social habits conditioned by social traditions, his viewpoint was always anthropological rather than antiquarian. Indeed, recent developments in interpretive archeology and the use of statistical methods of analysis flow directly from this tradition.

Judith M. Treistman

[See alsoArcheology; History, article onculture history; and the biography ofMorgan, Lewis Henry.]


(1923) 1964 How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia. 2d ed. Melbourne Univ. Press.

(1925) 1958 The Dawn of European Civilization. 6th ed., rev. New York: Knopf.

(1928) 1953 New Light on the Most Ancient East. 4th ed. New York: Praeger. → First published as The Most Ancient East.

1935 The Prehistory of Scotland. London: Routledge.

(1936) 1965 Man Makes Himself. 4th ed. London: Watts.

(1942) 1960 What Happened in History. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Penguin. → A paperback edition was published in 1964.

1951 Social Evolution. New York: Schumann; London: Watts. → Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Birmingham in 1947–1948.

(1958) 1962 The Prehistory of European Society. London: Cassell.


Adams, Robert McC. 1966 The Evolution of Urban Society: Early Mesopotamia and Prehispanic Mexico. Chicago: Aldine.

Braidwood, R. J. 1958 [Obituary]. American Anthropologist New Series 60:733–736.

Daniel, Glyn E. 1950 A Hundred Years of Archaeology. London: Duckworth.

Daniel, Glyn E. 1962 The Idea of Prehistory. London: Watts.

Frankfort, Henri 1951 The Birth of Civilization in the Near East. London: Williams & Norgate; Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1956 by Doubleday.

Gimbutas, Marija 1963 European Prehistory: Neolithic to the Iron Age. Biennial Review of Anthropology [1963]:69–106.

Mongait, Alexander (1955) 1959 Archaeology in the U.S.S.R. Rev. ed. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. → First published in Russian.

Piggott, Stuart 1958 Vere Gordon Childe: 1892–1957. Oxford Univ. Press. → Reprinted from Volume 44 of the Proceedings of the British Academy.

Piggott, Stuart (1965) 1966 Ancient Europe; From the Beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity: A Survey. Chicago: Aldine.

Smith, I. F. 1956 Bibliography of the Publications of Professor V. Gordon Childe. Prehistoric Society, Proceedings New Series 21:295–304.

Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.