Tourists strolling the ancient, Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae will note the site owes its “current presentation” to the Australian archaeologist who excavated it between 1928 and 1931. Vernon Gordon Childe (1892 – 1957) was never well-known in the country of his birth and has mostly been lost to history. However, Childe is well-worth exhuming as his life tells us much about the times he lived and the politics of every era.
Orkney is famous for its archaeological sites. The most well-known, Skara Brae, is a World Heritage listed Neolithic settlement uncovered during an enormous storm, in 1850, after being hidden for 4000 years. The local laird, William Watt, excavated the site on and off until 1868. In 1924 the damage from another huge storm meant the site needed more professional care and further excavation of the eight clustered houses, occupied from roughly 3180-2500 BCE, was essential if this “Scottish Pompeii” was to be preserved.
Childe, who would be the first to admit he was better at writing than digging, which he loathed, excavated carefully, acknowledging the work of every digger involved in the process of carefully examining and cataloguing the site. His book, Skara Brae: A Pictish Village in Orkney (1931), is a masterclass on how to communicate archaeological findings to a wide audience. It is worth noting, that as one of the 20th century’s most famous archaeologists, he never earned a degree in the subject. Childe’s real intellectual strength was his ability to synthesise and extrapolate from a wide-range of evidence. He pioneered interdisciplinary thinking. This made his writing powerfully relevant to the emerging discipline of archaeology which previously was very narrowly focused and amateurish.
Early Years and Politics
Vernon Gordon Childe (1892 – 1957) was born and educated in Sydney but spent most of his career as an academic, in Edinburgh and London, writing two-dozen books on prehistory. He was prevented from working in academia in Australia because of his political activism. Childe was a socialist and campaigned against the First World War believing it to be an imperialist conflict that could not possibly benefit working class people.
Childe spent his childhood at Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. He was a sickly child home schooled for several years until attending Sydney Church of England Grammar School, where he was badly bullied, before attending Sydney University where an interest in socialism developed. Childe’s father was an Anglican minister and did not approve of his son’s politics or atheism.
Childe was employed by the Australian Labor Party as a private secretary to John Storey (who was Premier of NSW 1920-1 until dying in office) due to the unwillingness of the academic establishment to employ him, even in the most junior role of tutor. However, Childe quickly became disillusioned with Labor Party politics, joining the far-left Industrial Workers of the World. Emigrating to London in 1921 to find academic work, he became librarian at the Royal Anthropological Institute which was the beginning of his archaeological career. During the next decade, Childe would champion the Marxist view of archaeology that was being popularised in the Soviet Union.
The Dawn of European Civilization (1925), is widely acknowledged as a seminal text by many who were inspired by his work. John Mulvaney, the “father of Australian archaeology”, thought it comparable with Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species, for the impact it had on archaeological thinking about past societies. Childe, with great originality, constructed an inclusive narrative exploring how the cultures of entire continents had been established. Importantly, he discussed how cultures exchanged ideas and that languages, customs and technologies were shared in migratory journeys. The field of culture-historical archaeology developed largely as a result of his thinking.
Focused on his writing and professional life, it seems Childe never had intimate relationships of any kind. He was popular with other academics, always enjoying conversation, especially in restaurants serving fine food and wine. He reputedly loved driving automobiles at speed and was cautioned by police for racing through London’s Piccadilly in the early hours of the morning. Childe was always eccentric and easily recognisable in his expensive black fedora hat and shiny black Mackintosh raincoat. In the warmer months he would wear shorts, socks with suspenders and his heavy walking boots with this much-loved raincoat.
The archaeologist’s politics often led him to make decisions that reflected his values. For example, in the 1940s he could have published with the prestigious Oxford University Press but Childe decided cheap Penguin paperbacks would enable more people to afford his writing. He also published books for the Young Communist League, was on the board of a Marxist quarterly journal and edited another published by a group of similarly-minded historians. He joined the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR and travelled to the Soviet Union several times during his life.
In 1949, George Orwell included Childe on his infamous list of “fellow travellers”. The author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four was giving advice to his friend, Celia Kirwan – whom he once proposed marriage unsuccessfully – after she requested information from him (as he lay dying of tuberculosis). Kirwan worked for the Information Research Department (IRD), a British government propaganda unit designed to counter communist influence and wanted to know whom to avoid having write for her department. The thirty-eight people Orwell listed, mostly academics and writers, he considered unsuitable for writing pamphlets for the IRD due to their communist sympathies. It is important to note that Childe was always egocentric in his beliefs and had private reservations which ultimately led to a loss of his youthful ideals in the last few years of his life.
Childe’s last significant excavation before retirement was at Maeshowe, situated not far from Skara Brae on Orkney. Childe had by this time, over a lengthy-career, a reputation for treating his colleagues and students thoughtfully and well. It appears he was viewed positively as a knowledgable, kindly eccentric. He was not much of a lecturer but very much sought-after for individual mentoring and small-group tutorials. The importance of his contribution to the field of archaeology was undisputed.
Return to Australia
Childe was deeply disillusioned with the state of Australian society he found on his return in 1957, 35 years after he had departed unable to find work due to his political beliefs. The University of Sydney, however, went some way towards recognising his contribution to archaeology which they had stymied, awarding him an honorary degree. Travelling the country, visiting friends, family and acquaintances, he perceived that people were badly educated, stupidly racist, especially against Aboriginal peoples and extraordinarily right-wing in outlook. Menzies’ Australia did not suit him and he articulated this publicly and privately.
Of particular professional concern, was the poor state of archaeological research in the country. Childe had grown-up surrounded by evidence of early Aboriginal habitation – including grinding grooves in the sandstone and rock art in shelters – by the local Gundungurra people. Childe hoped Australians would take the longer view of the continent’s history to include Indigenous perspectives. He espoused this view on ABC radio and in lectures, unfortunately, within a week he was dead.
Childe visited the Blue Mountains with the intention of committing suicide. He told friends he was intending to return to Australia, travel, visit friends and family and then take his own life but it seemed to them, merely jest. Dressed in his black fedora and raincoat he ascended above the spectacular Grose Valley. The police report concluded Childe met an accidental death due to his myopia (as his spectacles had been removed) but considering his raincoat and hat were also left, just back from the precipice, that seems unlikely. It has been suggested that the radiocarbon revolution was part of the reason Childe, the great synthesiser, took his own life.It is also possible he felt irrelevant to the future of the field he had spent a lifetime exploring and explaining to the public as well as other archaeologists. It is difficult not to imagine the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 depressed him, dispelling any remaining illusions about the nature of communism.
Gone but not forgotten
Childe has not been completely forgotten. Billy Griffiths’ recent book about ancient Australia opens with fond reference to the great archaeologist. Even popular culture, as crafted by Steven Spielberg, makes mention of Childe. While many would find it unlikely that an asexual Marxist academic would be one of the influences for Harrison Ford’s iconic archaeologist character, Indiana Jones, there are a few nods in the direction of Childe. The fedora worn by the adventurer has a particularly wide brim and high crown, just like the one Childe treasured. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Jones is lecturing about Skara Brae. He even suggests that a student reads books on “cultural diffusion” by V. Gordon Childe.
Childe, V. Gordon, Skara Brae, a Pictish village in Orkney, Kegan Paul, 1931
Green, Sally, Prehistorian: A Biography of V. Gordon Childe. Moonraker Press, 1981
Griffiths, Billy, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, Black Inc., (Kindle Edition), 2018
Mason, Fergus, The Real Life Indiana Jones: The Biography of V. Gordon Childe – The Man Who Inspired a Cinematic Icon, Absolute Crime (Kindle Edition), 2013
Rose, Mark, The Man in the Fedora, Archaeology Magazine, May 20, 2008