Vere Gordon Childe was a 20th-century archaeologist whose work concentrated on European prehistory, social evolution, and origins of the archaic state.
Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1892, Childe moved to Britain to begin his studies at Oxford University in 1914. After brief involvement in left-wing politics in his native Australia, he returned to England to work in the library of the Royal Anthropological Institute, where he came to publish his first book, The Dawn of European Civilization (1925). In 1927, Childe accepted the Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, where he concentrated his writings on European and Near Eastern prehistory. At this time, he conducted excavations throughout Scotland and published widely on his results, notably, The Prehistory of Scotland (1935). Childe left Edinburgh in 1946 to become director and professor of European archaeology at the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology. Childe retired in 1956 and returned to Australia, where he fell to his death during a survey of rock formations later that October.
Collectively, Childe’s earliest works on European prehistory argue that such cultural innovations as agriculture and metallurgy were developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia and later spread through trade and migration to prehistoric Europe, then a patchwork of heterogeneous societies. Arguing against popular notions that saw European civilization as racially and cultural “pure,” Childe insisted that Europe benefited from external influences that upset the status quo and introduced new cultural practices into the region. Europe had adopted the Near East’s advancements and reconfigured them in such a way that the student soon surpassed the teacher.
By the 1930s, archaeologists had become dissatisfied with cultural relativism and historical particularism and sought alternatives for explaining why cultures change. Childe introduced a modified social evolutionary framework, multilinear evolutionism, in which a culture followed a trajectory of increasing/ decreasing categories of social complexity (usually band, tribe, chiefdom, and state). While he did not disregard diffusion, Childe sought broader political and economic contexts in which to explain transformations in cultural practices. Change occurred because the role that political and economic institutions played in a society resulted in tensions between progressive and traditional practices. The influence of Marxism, especially historical materialism, on Childe is evident in his explanation of change as a product of conflict.
Toward the end of his career, Childe sought explanations for the origins of the archaic state. With more efficient agricultural practices, he argued, communities produced beyond their everyday necessities, creating a need to manage and distribute this surplus. Efficiency in agricultural production created a role for full-time specialists such as craftsmen and bureaucrats, who engaged in recursive relationships with agriculturalists. Citing the need to supervise large public works such as irrigation canals along with the need to resolve social conflict, Childe suggested a demand for a centralized organization (i.e., the state) to effectively coordinate this complex infrastructure. Childe set out 10 characteristics of archaic states: (1) increase in settlement size, (2) urban dwelling, full-time specialists, (3) taxation for surplus building purposes, (4) monumental architecture, (5) the emergence of a class-stratified society, (6) recording systems, (7) the development of counting, measuring, and calendrical systems, (8) an advancement in artistic expression, (9) the growth in long-distance trade in luxuries, and (10) a politically organized society based on territory rather than kinship.
- Childe, V. G. (1951). Man makes himself. New York: New American Library of World Literature. (Original work published 1936)
- Harris, D. R. (Ed.). (1994). The archaeology of V. Gordon Childe: Contemporary perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Trigger, B. G. (1980). Gordon Childe: Revolutions in archaeology. New York: Columbia University Press.