Vere Gordon Childe (April 14, 1892, Sydney, New South Wales–October 19, 1957, Mt. Victoria, New South Wales) was an Australian philologist by training who later specialised in archaeology, 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). He returned to Australia, where he became Private Secretary to John Storey, Member of the New South Wales Legislative Council for Balmain and shortly thereafter New South Wales Premier. His 1923 book How Labour Governs was based on his experience in this period of his life. On Storey's sudden death in 1921, Childe left politics and travelled in Europe.
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 modified diffusionist theory of the spread of civilization, identifying South Russia as the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and studied this theory in the context of the archeological record. 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 differed from the Nazis' 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 Abercromby 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 work which had begun after a storm had uncovered previously undiscovered additional structures. For Childe, this was unusual, as he was not a great excavator; his main skill lay in interpreting of data discovered by others. That year also saw the publication of his book, The Most Ancient East (1928), which explored the rise of civilization in the Near East.
Childe was also an accomplished populiser: 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 the 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 accidental; 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.
Childe was the first to explore developments he called the "Neolithic Revolution" and "Urban Revolution" in the archeological record, and they are still vital concepts in prehistoric studies. Further developments in civilization (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 to use 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.
Gathercole, P, Irving, T.H and Melleuish, G, Childe and Australia: Archaeology, Politics and Ideas, (University of Queensland Press, 1995)