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This profile was last updated on 3/9/05  and contains information from public web pages.


London University Institute of Archaeology

Employment History


  • first class honours degree , Latin , Greek and Philosophy
    Sydney University
9 Total References
Web References
Chapter I, 9 Mar 2005 [cached]
Having been an excellent student, with a first class honours degree in 1913 in Latin, Greek and Philosophy from Sydney University, (Trigger, Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology: 1980:32) he was fortunate to win a graduate scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford, in 1914, where he was trained primarily in the study of Classical archaeology and what he termed "comparative philology."He went on to become the Abercromby Professor, holding a chair of Archaeology in Edinburgh for almost two decades, and then becoming the director of the London University Institute of Archaeology in 1946 until resigning his position a year before his retirement in 1956.He traveled to various places the following year, and returned eventually to Sydney, Australia, in April 1957 where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by the same university at which he studied during the years of the First World War.In the morning of Oct. 17 of that year he took a taxi to hike in the Blue Mountains during which he jumped to his death, falling more than 1,000 feet below Govett's Leap near Bridal Veil Falls.A final posthumous publication, printed in an editorial of the Journal of Man in 1980, sealed in a correspondence after his death, makes the following prophetic statement:
His suicide confirms a characterization of Childe as private and as preferring to put forward his professional life above and before his personal, even to the exclusion of the latter.His geist, I will claim, is evidenced by his idealistic transcendence over the material, though the material aspects of life consumed him professionally.His final death by his own hand was a testament to his placing his sense of geist, of his own rational thought, above and beyond the particulars of life itself.
This archaeological data provided Childe with the foundation for further synthetic development and he sought to give the three labels of cultural development, the Three Ages of savagery, barbarism and civilizations a distinctively informative value by adopting food-production as the differentia of the Neolithic.The idea of the neolithic transition he further elaborated in The Bronze Age (1930) with food-production as the basis for the rise of civilization and the base for a chronology of European prehistory.He expounded bronze metallurgy as the basis for specialization of labor, implying social stratification, and the rise of regular trading networks, and provided an economic significance to the archaeological information presented.By thus redefining the Bronze Age he had recommitted himself to an economic interpretation of archaeological data, and he came to revise his earlier work The Most Ancient East, recognizing the rise of literacy and an early urban revolution in the three great river valleys of Mesopotamia, Mohenjo-Daro and Harapa, the rise in population that related to food-production and craft-specialization.Thus in New Light on the Most Ancient East (1934) he presented the Neolithic revolution as a "truly historical pageant of economic development."(ibid. 71)
In 1934 he also visited Russia and studied Russian works in prehistory, and he realized the fit in internal explanation by Marxist theory the development of prehistoric cultures without reference to "undocumented external factors."
Childe took advantage of the British alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II in order to reacquaint himself with Russian prehistorians, and he developed in Scotland before the Scots (1946) what had been a Marrist "perversion" of Marxism, which he held as giving a more faithful historical accounting of Scotland's prehistoric development than his early migrationist hypothesis in The Prehistory of Scotland (1936).A Marrist version sought explanation by supposedly universal laws of cultural evolution.And yet he could not fully explain the prehistory of Scotland by means of internal development by universal laws without invoking external continental factors of migration and diffusion.
His later works, Prehistoric Migrations to Europe (1950) and a chapter in The European Inheritance (1954) proved to be fallacious and misplaced in locating the cradle of Indo-European civilization and in attributing too much to the role of the Orient in the shaping of Europe.At this late point in his career, he found a sociological approach to epistemology and the discovery of Durkheim that led to a reinterpretation of Marxism--"Now at last I rid my mind of transcendental laws determining history and mechanical causes, whether economic or environmental, automatically shaping its course.Incidentally I realized that the environment that affected a prehistoric society was not that reconstructed by geologists and palaeobotanists but that known or knowable by the society with its then existing material and conceptual equipment. (Neither arable land nor ores figure in the historical environment of a Palaeolithic horde.) A society's scientific knowledge in turn is limited by its economic and social organization."(ibid. 73) Thus he arrived at what he considered to be the basis for a genuinely scientific history of Europe.
He undertook rewriting New Light on the Most Ancient East (1954) and The Dawn of European Civilization (1956), when he realized that Hawkes had been correct in asserting that by the Bronze age European society had acquired a distinctive culture pattern, and he understood the reasons why this was so.
International Socialism: Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology, 28 Sept 2007 [cached]
Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology International Socialism: Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology
Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology
Gordon Childe had mapped the cultures of prehistoric Europe, integrated them into a sequence of social evolution, charted the lines of communication and interaction that had shaped them, and seen in the longue durée of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages the progressive accumulation of knowledge and productivity which underpinned the rise of civilisation. His vision of the past amounted to a thoroughgoing critique of several narrower, more partial and sometimes ideologically twisted conceptions.
Extreme diffusionists had maintained that all ancient innovations had flowed from the cities of the East, just as they believed that all that was progressive in their own world was a gift to humanity of modern European empires. Childe exposed the conservatism and stagnation of the ancient empires, and contrasted this with the leapfrog progress possible in the freer conditions of prehistoric Europe.
Extreme nationalists had searched for archaeological evidence of master races whose "purity" had guaranteed "superiority". Childe buried their fantasies beneath a mountain of evidence that prehistoric societies had languished if isolated but blossomed when interacting and mixing with others.
The most important example is the development of radiocarbon dating-just beginning at the end of Childe's career-which has provided a chronology for prehistoric Europe independent of the king-lists of Egypt and Mesopotamia, demonstrating, among much else, that the east-to-west flow of ideas posited by Childe was often incorrect. The megalithic monuments of north west Europe, for example, are now known to pre-date those of the eastern Mediterranean.
In 1949 Childe submitted a short article entitled "A Defence of Prehistory" to the journal Antiquity, offering a summary explanation of his Marxist approach.36 He began by explaining that the Marxist account:
And this absence-as Christopher Hill among others noted-is true of Childe's work generally.39 Even when Childe used the term revolution, it was not class struggle that he had in mind.
Childe seems to have regarded magic, religion and ideology as aberrations, a form of social pathology that blocked the "normal" process of progressive social evolution. But the class struggle pervades all aspects of the life of class societies, and magic, religion and ideology, as systems of mystification and control, are therefore essential features of elite power. Childe was right to regard megaliths and pyramids as monuments to mumbo-jumbo. But his analytical treatment of them was shallow, because the class struggle of which they were an expression was almost entirely missing from his conception. Nor, in relation to such things, did he grasp the potential explanatory power of Marx's use of the concepts of reification and alienation. Megaliths and pyramids are triumphs of social organisation, cultural sophistication, and engineering skill; simultaneously they turn these things into monstrous caricatures of themselves, where human labour, instead of being productive and useful, is wasted in the construction of temples of the sun and tombs for god-kings.
Even culture, a concept so vital to Childe's archaeology, turns out to be essentially untheorised. His attempts to define it amounted to little more than lists of archaeological features and artefacts. We are left wondering about more than the relationship between culture in an archaeological sense (material assemblages) and culture in a sociological sense (past social groups). In so far as there is correspondence, such that archaeological remains can be read as "culture history", we want to understand the dynamics of the culture formation implied. Contradiction and conflict, almost entirely missing from Childe in this context, are essential to understanding.
Childe had no illusions about Rome. He hated empires and wars. He understood that Roman domination meant ignorance and waste, and even suggested that the fall of Rome unshackled humanity and prepared the ground for fresh advances. But he failed to construct a theory of history that could account for the rise and fall of empires.
There seems to be no record of any contact between Childe and the tiny forces of Trotskyism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He struggled alone to get beyond the banality of Stalinist ideology. His reservations grew, but he kept them private, clinging to his political allegiance as a life-raft of hope in a world scarred by unemployment, fascism and world war. But in 1956 the prism of wishful thinking through which he had viewed the Soviet Union was finally shattered, first by Nikita Khrushchev's "secret" speech admitting the crimes of Stalin, then by the crushing of working class revolution in Hungary.
Childe did not sign the letter of protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary published in the New Statesman by some leading British Communists and pro-Communists. He claimed it would have given too much satisfaction to lifelong enemies. But he was deeply disconcerted. Jack Lindsay, a close friend from the early days in Australia, described him as "very hard hit by the Khrushchev revelations of 1956".40 Childe himself wrote to another friend that he could not "regard events in Hungary with equanimity".41 Most telling, though, is the embittered letter he sent to his Soviet archaeological colleagues, in which he condemns them for their shoddy methodology.42 Though Childe did not say so, this was a product of the isolationism, dogmatism and arrogance of Soviet archaeology under Stalin. A principled academic who always worked from the material evidence, Childe, now that his political allegiance had been thrown into crisis, allowed his accumulated irritation and contempt to spill out.
It was well deserved. Childe, because he rejected Stalinist orthodoxy, had long been the target of patronising little homilies from the Soviet Union.
Among such English scholars is Gordon Childe. Childe has not yet succeeded in overcoming many of the errors of bourgeois scholarship. But he understands that the scientific truth is in the Socialist camp and is not ashamed to call himself a pupil of Soviet archaeologists.43
Those "errors of bourgeois scholarship" were, of course, precisely the ideas that had brought Childe closer to the revolutionary Marxist tradition.
Childe retired as director of the London Institute of Archaeology in the summer of 1956. He arrived back in Sydney in April the following year. After a few months spent visiting family, friends and colleagues, he set out walking in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales early on the morning of 19 October 1957. He never returned, having thrown himself over a cliff to his death at a spot just a few miles from the place of his birth.
Gordon Childe had never married and had no children. Though he had many friends, he had always seemed rather detached and distant, and probably suffered greatly from loneliness. He feared old age and declining powers. His eyesight may have been failing. No doubt there were personal reasons for him to end his life. But they were not the only ones.
Many of his perspectives were under attack, yet he seems to have lacked the will to embrace new approaches such as radiocarbon dating and quantification techniques, and to use them to resolve contradictions, create new insights, and answer the critics. He felt that his life's work was over and, this being so, that nothing remained that might fill his old age.
Trigger, Bruce, 1980, Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology (Thames and Hudson).
It was here that I alighted ... [cached]
It was here that I alighted upon copies of some of Gordon Childe's and Richard Atkinson's work, and became very interested.
After completing my degree as my family wanted me to do, I then wrote to Professor Gordon Childe who was tutoring at the Institute of Archaeology, who accepted my request and I became a student of his.
During your archaeological career, you met many well-known archaeologists like Mortimer Wheeler and Gordon Childe. Did you find that they influenced you?
Yes, I knew both of these men! They were both such characters, but in different ways.
It was excellent to be Gordon Childe's pupil - we all loved him! He was a quiet, nice, shy, eccentric man; a little strange and very kind. It was also because of him that I became proficient in several languages such as French, German, Italian and Spanish, as well as being able to read Portuguese, as he would set us reading that had not yet been translated into English, and would ask us to translate papers that we were reading for him, such as papers covering folklore from Spain, etc. Aside from being my tutor for a while, Professor Gordon Childe was also an acquaintance of my Australian grandmother.
The World Archaeological Congress, 21 June 2007 [cached]
But Daryll Forde, the founder of the UCL Department, was a friend of Gordon Childe, a past Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London and had been trained in the tradition of Boasian anthropology in the US before taking up the chair at UCL.
(Vere) Gordon ..., 30 June 2013 [cached]
(Vere) Gordon Childe
Archaeologist, born in Sydney, New South Wales, SE Australia. He studied at Sydney and Oxford universities, and his early books, notably The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925), and The Most Ancient Near East (1928), established him as the most influential archaeological theorist of his generation. He was professor of archaeology at Edinburgh (1927?46) and director of the University of London In...
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