Gordon Childe: Memories and Affirmation

By Gathercole, Peter | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview
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Gordon Childe: Memories and Affirmation


Gathercole, Peter, Antiquity


A special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology (Volume 12, Number 1-3, 2009) has been published recently, entitled Were Gordon Childe--50 years after'. Edited by Alan Saville of the National Museums of Scotland, it contains 10 papers by 11 authors originally given at a conference at Durham University in 2007, organised by Margarita Diaz-Andreu. The volume covers the range of Childe's archaeological interests--from prehistoric Europe to the Indus civilisation--as well as many of his philosophical and theoretical concerns, including Marxism. It also contains a bibliography of Childe's published writings compiled by Professor Terrence Irving and myself, which we had worked on for many years. We located 762 items between 1915 and 2008, our cut-offyear, comprising books, monographs, articles, chapters, translations, reviews, letters and miscellanea. Subsequently, translations of seven of his articles (six in Polish, one in Dutch) and one review have come to our attention, and no doubt there will be more.

My own interest in Childe and his publications began in 1951 in my third year as a Cambridge undergraduate. Much of my previous National Service between 1947 and 1949 had been spent in Army Education in Egypt, where I had given lectures, mainly to conscripts (as I myself was), many of whom had little idea why they were there, and had little knowledge of the histories, cultures and politics of the Middle East. The smell of the Egyptian desert and memories of the antiquities I had seen in museums in Cairo returned to me in my encounters with Childe's writings at Cambridge.

Conscious of my limited archaeological knowledge, after Cambridge I took a postgraduate diploma at the London Institute of Archaeology, where I was taught, among others, by Childe. He was exciting. It has often been said that Childe was a poor lecturer; that he mumbled; that his sing-song Australian accent was disturbing; that he could appear abstracted and remote to students. Some of these comments I agreed with, but thought them pretty minor compared to the content of his teaching, which was up-to-date and well organised. Childe was stimulating, too, when suddenly he would break into a spontaneous aside because new evidence concerning a well known site suggested a novel interpretation, or when a colleague, often overseas, had written concerning a new discovery which he felt should be passed on to us. The door of scholarship remained open. Going back in the evenings on a crowded bus to the cramped Hackney flat where my wife and I lived I often pondered the impact of Childe's single-minded teaching.

Childe expected students to keep up with his learning, and to devote much time and effort to his set essays. Though initially daunting, going through them with him was very rewarding, and his criticisms were constructive. He could be consideration itself. Once, when I asked for an extension for an essay's deadline because our son had been born early, and I was anxious to have more time to help my wife at home, he immediately asked if 10 days would be enough, inquiring if all was going well.

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