What happened to Childe?

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) made himself the most influential Australian scholar in the humanities and social sciences. Forty years after his death, his ideas stimulate thinkers well beyond his own field of Prehistoric archaeology. Humphrey McQueen has returned to Childe’s writings to reflect on current disputes about facts, theorising and politics in the piecing together of our past.

What happened to Childe?

Humphrey McQueen

On 19 October 1957, Vere Gordon Childe removed his spectacles and went climbing at Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains. This method of giving himself to death was typical of how he had accounted for what had happened in history, leaving a place for chance within a web of necessities. In a farewell message, he declared that the “British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational. To end his life deliberately is in fact something that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other animals even better than ceremonial burial of the dead.” That comparison was inevitable from the man who had lifted the study of our pre-literate past from the antiquarianism of amateurs towards a social science.

In twenty books and 240 learned articles, Childe systematised the study of earlier humankind by treating its rubbish as more than evidence for the stylistic analysis of relics. Classification of objects remained invaluable but only as one means to approach how homo sapiens continue to remake ourselves.

Undergraduate achievements in Classics and geology at the University of Sydney earned Childe a scholarship to Oxford in 1914 where he studied comparative philology and the iconography of Greek ceramics. In England, Childe became active in Guild Socialist and anti-conscriptionist circles, commitments he continued after his return to Sydney in 1917.

The thought police, including his professors, hounded him from several teaching positions in Sydney and Brisbane until he worked as policy advisor to a Labor premier of New South Wales who sent him back to London, only to be sacked upon a change of government.

V. Gordon Childe achieved three reputations during his lifetime, and he sought a fourth, which he has now attained. His international reputation grew from his scholarship on preliterate societies, with translations into a dozen languages, one or two of which even he could not read. After his return to England in 1921, he wrote three major works, including The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925) which remained a standard text until the 1960s. These volumes brought him to the foundation professorship of Prehistoric Archaeology in the University of Edinburgh in 1927. Digs on sites around the British Isles resulted in more publications before he moved to London to direct the Institute of Archaeology in 1946.

Childe fashioned evidence to establish the eighteenth-century assumption that human society had moved through three stages – from ‘savagery’ past ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilization’. Those terms were not judgemental, referring only to levels of technology. Civilization was defined by the achievement of writing, cities, agriculture and metallurgy, none of which assured any refinement in behaviour or the arts. Childe labelled these changes ‘revolutions’ to emphasise that his subject matter had been as momentous as the Industrial Revolution.

Public esteem came from his two surveys of human action, Man Makes Himself (1936) and What happened in history? (1942). Popularisation was never simplification since these works refined arguments and offered fresh insights to their author as well as his audience. His treatment contrasted with the sensationalism that followed the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. That pair of volumes had sold more than 300 000 copies at his death and were part of the movement for extra-mural education in which Childe had worked. Historians of ideas need to consider how many novelists, painters and scientists gained their understanding of the evolution of human society from Childe.

Shy in address, unprepossessing in manner, and as clumsy with his hands as he was agile in thinking about how earlier peoples had used theirs, Childe was memorialised as ‘excellent, endearing and authoritative’. His prose was elegant and wry as when he explained 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.’ The only flaw in his style was an addiction to the exclamation mark. His talents as a teacher included the ability to explain complicated processes such as how to cast a bronze dagger. After reading his account,
I felt that I could make one, ignoring the attention that Childe had placed on how protracted and hit-and-miss the mastery of that technique had been for our forebears.

No one was more aware than Childe that, despite his stone and bronze artefacts’ having endured for millenia, his data, like his hypotheses, were fragile. His genius flourished in the synthesising of details for which he never relied on his memory so that he made no more slips than any other pedant. Rather, his difficulty was that the facts would not stay factual. At the head of the bibliography of his last book, he advised:

Most of the statements in the foregoing pages are supposed to be justified by archaeological facts and technical arguments set forth in tedious detail in the following of my books.

If ‘tedious’ was another instance of Childe’s playing at being ‘naughty Gordon’ – childish, not Childeish, as he put it in his ‘Retrospect’ – his use of ‘supposed’ to describe his life’s work was neither loss of confidence nor false modesty. Blessed with a scepticism that never slid into cynicism, Childe suspected that his fear of being proved wrong was subverted by ‘an equally irrational desire to overcome my own prejudices.’

All Prehistoric archaeologists at that time faced four challenges. The first was that their excavations dug graves for their own previous explanations. Childe had to revise The Dawn five times within thirty years. From 1945, upheavals from the accumulation of evidence were compounded by new techniques for dating artefacts by the application of carbon dating, (C14). After Childe’s death, those revised chronologies had to be re-callibrated against the tree-rings of bristlecone pines. Some of Childe’s timetables were out by 2000 years, which would not have surprised him.

Had his charts been wrong uniformly, the structure of his argument might have survived. However, the new tools showed that cultures he had nominated as sources for civilization had come later than those they were supposed to have irradiated with their inventiveness. Western Megaliths preceded Eastern pyramids. In doing justice to Childe’s mistakes, we need to recall that Piltdown Man was not exposed until the early 1950s, while genetics wanted the confirmation of DNA. No critic has suggested that Childe could have done much better with the evidence then available. Indeed, he is praised for his ‘flexibility’ to absorb revisions.

The fourth disturbance had come with new ways of considering society whether from Durkheim’s sociology, Margaret Mead in anthropology or Jung on myths. These challenges drew Childe deeper into philosophy, as would his contacts with Soviet archaeologists who focussed on the social significance of technologies, spurning the fetishism of relics. Hence, he came to ponder how we might know anything at all about our past.

Childe’s reputation as a social theorist has emerged now that his earlier fame has faded. For a while, younger archaeologists felt some need to slay the father of their profession. Within a few years, he was so wrong that no one needed to refute him. That his ideas still can evoke interest throughout the humanities and social sciences would be amazing were it not for the qualities of his intellect. To read any page by Childe is to engage with a mind which accepts its parameters yet can delight in its powers.

Childe had always woven his reflections on methodology into his recounting of facts so that his perceptiveness about human knowledge appears in books that he designated as history, as in this passage from Man Makes Himself:

 The constructive character of the potter’s craft reacted on human thought. Building up a pot was a supreme instance of creation by man. The lump of clay was perfectly plastic; man could mould it as he would. In making a tool of stone or bone he was always limited by the shape and size of the original material: he could only take bits away from it. No such limitations restrict the activity of the potter. She can form her lump as she wishes; she can go on adding to it without any doubts as to the solidity of the joins. In thinking of ‘creation’, the free activity of the potter in ‘making form where there was no form’ constantly recurs to man’s mind; the similes in the Bible taken from the potter’s craft illustrate the point.

Understanding came from activity, just as all knowledges, like language, were social products and possessions.

The transition from ‘man’ to ‘she’ in that passage was typical of the attention Childe paid to women in Prehistory. Elsewhere he brought his political outlook to bear on the limits to power that the agricultural revolution had allowed them. He looked about him to recognise that women in the 1930s did so much of the hardest labour in rural England but had not won social or economic control. He took this imbalance as reason enough not to assume that their productivity during the stone age had ensured a Matriarchy.

Politics always stimulated Childe’s scholarship. His belief in social equality paralleled the history he wrote from the bottom up by looking at domestic buildings rather than temples, potsherds more than painted vases. Similarly, his earliest books opposed the German scholars who stressed an Aryan centre, a view which Childe considered chauvinist. Perhaps his antipodean origins helped him to perceive a social economy across Europe before the borders to nation-market-states. Whatever the reason, his continental outlook distanced him from any single font for civilization and he never supported that extreme diffusionism which, in 1969, inspired Thor Heyerdahl to voyage in a reed raft, the Ra, from Morroco to test whether the Phonecians had reached Central America, which he did not. In that year, Erich von Daniken drove the diffusionist thesis to its illogical conclusion by arguing that the pyramid-builders had dropped from outer space.

By the middle of the 1930s, more urgent political questions were exciting Childe who feared that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were dragging all of Europe towards another Dark Age. In that circumstance, he wondered whether Pre-historians could redeem some notion of progress. Childe knew that progress could not inhere in a single culture, as the Germanists argued, since cultures rose and fell, with some of the most civilized being over-run by barbarians. Instead, Childe redefined progress in terms of technologies and science. His ground was that their results had been more cumulative, even if fractured through time and place.

Contact with archaeologists in the Soviet Union modified Childe’s views about diffusion. If he considered the Slavism of Soviet excavators as misguided as the German assertion of pre-eminence, he nonetheless gained from his Soviet co-workers a readiness to accept internal reasons for changes in society. Although Childe never grasped at every domestic disagreement as a prefigurement of the class struggle, he accepted that his initial vision of light from the East had suffered from long-sightedness. Fluency in Russian enriched his footnotes with the reports from Soviet digs.

Despite Childe’s never joining a Communist Party, he was not merely a fellow traveler, but became a non-party Marxist. One way to follow how Childe remade his ideas after 1925 is to ask when did he decide that he had become a Marxist? The answer seems to be during the early 1930s. For a further twenty years he deepened his understanding of what that commitment involved in intellectual terms. If the three words in his title Man Makes Himself was as brief a statement of Marxism as is possible to give, its thrust also applied to Marxism. In order to become a Marxist, Childe had to contribute to its making.

Childe was but one of a number of British Marxists from the 1930s who were leaders in their fields. Britain’s chief scientist during the war, J. D. Bernal, author of Science in history was one, while J. B. S. Haldane initiated the continuing Marxist heritage in biology. Other contemporaries, such as Jacob Bronowski, had had their eyes opened to the links between social power and technology by a Soviet delegate to the 1931 British Association who lectured on the relevance of Newton’s experiments to British merchants. Archaeology had already taught Childe about the connections between economics and science.

When Childe and his comrades acknowledged that researchers were driven by commerce as well as by calculus they did not dismiss those discoveries as no more than political prejudices. Hence, a chasm divides their sociology of ideas from that of today’s theorisers who treat all claims to knowledge as assertions of power, and nothing more. One of Childe’s appeals remains how he integrated awareness of the ideological impetus for research with a recognition of its objective residue: ‘Magic was the placenta of science’, he once wrote. Notwithstanding, he was more impressed by craftspeople who passed on their skills through practice than by a magus spinning abstractions.

Typical of the contraries that Childe cherished was his reaction against ‘Prehistory’ as the label for the academic discipline that he had founded. The distinction between the Prehistory and History began as a demarcation line between those professionals who relied on written sources and those who had nothing to go on but artifacts. Childe set out to break down that division by demonstrating continuities in human achievement. He aimed to have pre-literate eras incorporated in ‘History’.

One obstacle was that the archaeological record set limits to our knowledge of earlier human beings. Technologies could be deduced from the classification of tools, bones and buildings. Social and political structures might be supposed, though with difficulty and caution. Our knowledge of their ideologies could never be more than guess work.

In addition, Childe hoped that historians would abandon their fixation on texts and learn how to read objects. Despite the emergence of industrial archaeology and social history, professional historians remain blind to material sources, treating even the visual as mere illustration for their words.

Childe thought through these differences between Prehistory and History in terms of how much to borrow from anthropological investigations into contemporary stone-age cultures. Should, for instance, he transfer kinship systems from the Australian Aborigines to describe social life in the Orkneys 4000 years before the present? He kept away from such comparative ethnology because it assumed ‘that, when the Arunta had created a material culture adapted to their environment, they stopped thinking altogether.’ To attribute timelessness to the mentalities of any people is to render them pre-human.

Today, Aboriginal Australians feel slighted when the academic study of their pasts is consigned to Prehistory, as if their cultures are pre-human. Hence, they are offended by the sentence that Manning Clark penned around 1960 to open his six volumes: ‘Civilization did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century.’

The solution is not as simple as abandoning Prehistory in favour of History as the title for the academic category allocated to the recall of Aboriginal experiences. In seeking that equality of terminologies, they risk having the experiences of their ancestors distorted by methods of inquiry which rely on an outlook peculiar to one stratum of recent Europeans. ‘History’ is the memory-bank of modernity, and as such is inseparable from colonisation. Aborigines might fare better with the assumptions of Prehistory. The privileging of written evidence that underlay History also sustained the doctrine of terra nullius, with its preference for codes of laws and title deeds.

When Childe returned to Australia in 1957, the disciplines of Prehistory and Archaeology were still in their own stone-age as intellectuals waited the diffusion of tools. Childe encouraged John Mulvaney to dig, but knew that he would not be around to see even the first results. During the next decade, Mulvaney’s Prehistorians presented Aborigines with proof of a 30 000-year occupation, discoveries which have sagged into the cliché about 40 000 years of Dreaming.

In Australia, Childe is remembered also for How Labour Governs (1922) which dealt with how the Labour movement governs itself, not with how the ALP managed capitalism as a whole. As a democrat, Childe wanted popular sovereignty extended to places of work and so had little sympathy for state control, which he condemned as ‘Australian Prussianism’. Since his intimacy with Labor politicians followed from a decade of studing Greek demagogues, tyrants and traitors, surely they were in his mind as he wrote of political machinations among the oligarchs of democracy. Anyone intrigued by rats in the ranks should consult Childe’s first classic.

A minor inheritance from How Labour Governs, one which would have delighted Childe, has been a willingness by Australian historians to include jokes in the indexes to our books. Childe began his with an entry for ‘Abusing politicians as a way to securing seats’, proceeded through ‘Beer, free for strike breakers’ and ‘Police. See Baton’ to conclude with ‘Zoo, strike breakers in.’

Childe reached Australia again around his sixty-fifth birthday. Despite his sympathy for H. V. Evatt, a friend from university days, who was then leader of the opposition, Childe found Australian society less to his liking than England’s. He lectured Melbournites on how their cultural level was lower than that of Iceland’s, perhaps even that of Iceland during the tenth century.

A career devoted to the interpretation of artefacts rather than of speeches helped Childe to recognise the transformation of material life then underway in Australia. He saw better than most lefties then – and many historians since – how a ‘Menzies revolution’ was producing the conditions of life that workers had earlier formed unions and a Labour Party to attain. Were we to apply the criteria that Childe had developed for the transition from barbarism to civilization to 1950s Australia, we could substitute suburbia for urbanisation, hire purchase for magic malechite, the Ad-Mass media for writing.

To conclude that Childe took his own life because he feared surgery for prostate would be as wrong as to suppose that he did so because he was disillusioned with his ideas or ideals. As a confirmed bachelor, he had friends but no family to consider. His last letter concluded with serenity rather than despair:

I have enormously enjoyed revisiting the haunts of my boyhood, above all the Blue Mountains. I have answered to my own satisfaction questions that intrigued me then. Now I have seen the Australian spring; I have smelt the boronia, watched the snakes and lizards, listened to the ‘locusts’. There is nothing more I want to do here; nothing I feel I ought and could do. I hate the prospect of summer, but I hate still more the fogs and snows of a British winter. Life ends best when one is happy and strong.

Further reading:

Peter Gathercole et al. (eds), Childe and Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1992.
Sally Green, Prehistorian: A Biography of V. Gordon Childe, Moonraker Press, 1981.
Bruce G. Trigger, Gordon Childe, Revolutions in Archaeology, Thames and Hudson, 1980.
The bibliographies in these volumes lead to the writings by and about Childe used for this essay. All of Childe’s books are out of print.