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Vere Gordon Childe
Vere Gordon Childe (April 14, 1892 - October 19, 1957) was an Australian archaeologist, perhaps best known for his excavation of the unique Neolithic site of Skara Brae in Orkney and for his Marxist views which informed his thinking about prehistory. He is also credited with coining the terms "Neolithic Revolution" and "Urban Revolution". He was one of the great archaeological synthesizers attempting to place his discoveries inside a theory of prehistoric development on a wider European and world scale.
Childe was born in 1892 in Sydney, and came to Britain to attend the University of Oxford (Queen's College). His book, The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925) won him immediate recognition, and he followed it up with other books on archaeological theory. In that first book he laid out his ideas on the relation between European and Near Eastern development. He also explored the relation of archeology and Indo-European languages which he further developed in The Aryans : a study of Indo-European origins, (1926). He posited a more detailed theory of Aryan invasion into Europe, first postulated by Max Muller, identifying South Russia as the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. His basic ideas contributed to the Kurgan invasion theory later suggested by Marija Gimbutas. Childe’s original concept of the Aryans was inevitably influenced by the racist ideology of his time, but nevertheless it was different to the Nazi's crude Aryan supremacist ideas which he attacked strongly throughout the thirties. He was multi-talented, being an accomplished linguist, and by 1927 had been appointed Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh, a post which he held until 1946. His excavation of Skara Brae took place in 1928, when he was summoned to supervise the work which had begun as a result of storm damage uncovering previously undiscovered structures in addition to those already exposed. For Childe this was unusual as he was not a great excavator, his main skill lay in interpretation of data and finds discovered by others. That year also saw his book The Most Ancient East (1928) which explored the rise of civilisation in the Near East.
Childe was also an accomplished populazier his two most widely read books What Happened in History (1942) and Man Makes Himself (1951) were readable accounts that brought archaeology to a wider audience and helped make him well known. After leaving Edinburgh, Childe was appointed director of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London for ten years, until his retirement in 1956. He returned to Australia, but died in 1957 in the Blue Mountains. He fell to his death in circumstances which may have been an accident; however, in view of his personal circumstances, it is thought more likely that he committed suicide.
Childe had been involved in left-wing politics in Australia, but his Marxism was more intellectual than activist. Perhaps it was natural that, being an archaeologist with only the material artefacts of the past to inform him, he should be drawn to an overarching theory of history which explained everything as a result of the changes in the modes of production. It was clear that early humans were hunter gatherers, and that civilisation had arisen when they had first developed agriculture and then concentrated populations in cities. These developments which he called the "Neolithic Revolution" and "Urban Revolution" were first explored through archaeological evidence by him, and they are still vital concepts in prehistoric studies.
Further developments in civilisation (Childe did concentrate his attention on Europe and the Near East, despite the occasional excursus) could be explained with reference to the changes in technology that occurred, which were accessible from the archaeological record. To do this Childe started used terms like Bronze Age or Iron Age as a way of exploring shifts from one level of material development to another, rather than just for dating.
Childe was unusual in emphasising the Hellenistic period as the apex of Graeco-Roman civilisation, rather than the world of Athens in the 5th century BC, or that of the Roman Empire. In the Hellenized eastern Mediterranean, and particularly at Alexandria he saw the culmination of classical culture.
- The Archaeology of V Gordon Childe by David R Harris ISBN 052284622X
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