Centenary Paper: V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: A Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies

By Smith, Michael E. | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Centenary Paper: V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: A Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies


Smith, Michael E., The Town Planning Review


'The Urban Revolution' by V. Gordon Childe (Town Planning Review, 1950) is one of the most heavily cited papers ever published by an archaeologist. The intellectual context and influence of Childe's paper are examined here. Childe was the first to synthesise archaeological data with respect to the concept of urbanism, and the first to recognise the radical social transformation that came with the earliest cities and states. This paper traces the influence of his ideas and shows their relevance to studies of ancient urbanism today. Although Childe's treatment of urban planning was brief, his ideas presaged current research into ancient urban planning. The paper ends with a call for renewed interaction between scholars of ancient and modern urbanism.

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was the most influential archaeologist of the twentieth century. His early fieldwork and research in the 1920s overturned archaeological models of European prehistory. He then turned to theory and synthesis and for the first time applied social models to archaeological data concerning the major transformations in the evolution of human society. His synthetic work was disseminated widely through two scholarly yet accessible books: Man Makes Himself (1936) and What Happened in History (1942). Childe was a Marxist, and in these and other works he employed two key concepts to organise his discussion: the Neolithic Revolution and the Urban Revolution. Childe's models for these revolutions largely created the modern scholarly understanding of two of the most fundamental and far-reaching transformations in the human past. Childe's paper 'The Urban Revolution' - first published in Town Planning Review (Childe, 1950) - is one of the most widely cited papers ever published by an archaeologist.1

I first review Childe's contributions to the archaeological research on the origins of cities and states. His concept of the Urban Revolution continues to have relevance today, both within and beyond archaeological study. Then I comment on the relevance of Childe's Urban Revolution model for our understanding of the nature of planning in the earliest cities. Although Gordon Childe published little on urban morphology or planning, his ideas have contributed to current models of ancient urban planning. Readers interested in the life and intellectual contributions of V. Gordon Childe can consult a substantial body of works (e.g. McNairn, 1980; Trigger, 1980; Green, 1981; Manzanilla, 1987; Peace, 1988; Gathercole, 1994; Wailes, 1996; Greene, 1999; Patterson, 2003).

The historical context of Childe's concept of 'revolutions'

Cultural evolution

Most of all, perhaps, we will remember him as the man who made order out of archaeological chaos? It hardly matters that some details of Childe's scheme don't fit the current North American data. What matters is that Childe had a vision of evolution at a time when other archaeologists had only chronology charts. (Flannery, 1994, 109-10)

Over the past several millennia, human societies have undergone major transformations in their social orders. Ten thousand years ago, all humans lived in small, mobile groups that subsisted on wild plants and animals. In several areas of the earth, early hunting groups domesticated local plant and animal species to forge a farming way of life. Agriculture was accompanied by greater sedentism and population growth, and its adoption was typically followed by the expansion of the farming (Neolithic) way of life into new territories through a combination of migration and trade. After some time, a number of these farming societies transformed themselves into much larger, more complex social systems characterised by cities, political states and class inequalities. Again, the new way of life quickly expanded beyond its zones of origin through conquest and trade. Rulers and dynasties rose and fell, and the potsherds and stone tools of archaeology made way for written documents as the major source of evidence for human history.

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