V. Gordon Childe and the Vocabulary of Revolutionary Change

By Greene, Kevin | Antiquity, March 1999 | Go to article overview

V. Gordon Childe and the Vocabulary of Revolutionary Change


Greene, Kevin, Antiquity


Introduction

Some publications have an extraordinary influence beyond their immediate subject area, irrespective of their changing status within academic history and archaeology, if they contain ideas or terminology that can be seized upon in general or popular books. The history of technology in particular remains in the grip of Lynn White Jr (1962: medieval inventiveness), Moses Finley (1965: classical stagnation) and V. Gordon Childe (1936/42: NR and [UR.sup.1]). But while White and Finley simply defended or elaborated their initial theses in later writings, Childe's vocabulary of revolution changed in response to a broader socio-political context. Furthermore, the many writers who treat the NR and/or the UR as counterparts of the IR of the 18th century AD overlook the fact that Childe actually 'invented' these prehistoric revolutions by analogy with the IR.

In the first Gordon Childe memorial lecture in 1975 Grahame Clark implied (1976: 16) - condescendingly - that the NR and UR were of merely antiquarian interest:

At this point I ought I suppose to refer to Childe's Neolithic and Urban Revolutions which exist in our thoughts whether or not they did in prehistory . . . What prehistorians now visualise is the operation of inexorable processes.

However, this sentiment has had little impact on the presentation of the NR in particular in general accounts of economic and/or technological history. Cipolla's The economic history of world population (1978) not only retained its first chapter title, 'The two revolutions' (i.e. the NR and the IR), but devoted a long footnote to Clark (1978: 34):

All definitions are ad hoc and their validity rests on what one wants to demonstrate. In this book I am using the term Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution not in relation to speed but in relation to the revolutionary character of a change that, no matter how rapid or how slow, transformed hunters and gatherers into shepherds and farmers.

The central interest of this aspect of Childe's work was underlined in 1980 by Trigger's choice of title for his book Gordon Childe: revolutions in archaeology.

Genesis of revolutions

Childe first made direct associations between the noun 'revolution' (frequently with a capital 'R') and episodes of change in prehistory in the mid 1930s. It had been notably absent from The dawn of European civilization (1925), which employed the language of transition (e.g. 'The several stages of the transformation of the world of food-gatherers . . . to this state of [Bronze Age] civilization', 1925: 302). The introduction to The most ancient East (1928) spoke of 'The greatest moments - that revolution whereby man ceased to be purely parasitic . . . and then the discovery of metal and the realization of its properties - have indeed been passed before the curtain rises' (1928: 2); later in the text is found 'For now we are on the brink of the great revolution, and soon we shall encounter men who are masters of their own food supply . . .' (1928: 42). This usage parallels drafts of a contribution to Bernal's projected Marxist history of science that Childe wrote in 1933-4 (Gathercole 1994: 33).

New light on the most ancient East (1934) included 'revolutions, economic' as a new headword in its index, and its concluding chapter was pervaded by revolutionary vocabulary (1934: 283):

Two great revolutions in human culture fell within the scope of this book - the change from a food-gathering to a food-producing economy and the establishment of urban civilization based upon industry and commerce.

New light also added analogies with the IR of the 18th century AD. Food production '. . . was an economic revolution - the greatest in human history after the mastery of fire. . . . Judging by the observed effects of the Industrial Revolution in England, a rapid increase of population would be the normal corollary of such a change' (1934: 42); Sumerian towns grew into 'regular industrial and commercial cities wherein doubtless in response to the opportunities of livelihood created by the new economy an industrial proletariat multiplied as quickly as it did in England during the industrial revolution' (1934: 186); and 'As in the Industrial Revolution of Britain' this led to emigration - thereby assisting the process of diffusion (1934: 284-5). …

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