"Yours (Unusually) Cheerfully, Gordon": Vere Gordon Childe's Letters to R.B.K. Stevenson

By Stevenson, Alice | Antiquity, December 2011 | Go to article overview

"Yours (Unusually) Cheerfully, Gordon": Vere Gordon Childe's Letters to R.B.K. Stevenson


Stevenson, Alice, Antiquity


In early 1988 my grandfather, Robert Barron Kerr Stevenson (1913-1992), former Keeper of the National Antiquities of Scotland, was asked about his recollections of his former teacher and colleague Vere Gordon Childe. "There is", be wrote in reply, "very little that I can say of use to you". The reason for such a statement seems to be that my grandfather felt that his contacts with Childe had never been concerned with the broad historical and philosophical concepts that scholars were so interested in, believing rather that his own academic perspectives were more from the "worm's eye than the bird's eye view". Yet what my grandfather knew was a more personal side to Childe that does not come across in his published works. This is evident from the surviving four letters and four postcards sent by Childe to my grandfather between 1945 and 1956, which are currently in my possession. Much of what is contained in these pieces of correspondence attest to aspects of Childe's life that are already well documented in the biographical literature; his fondness for a bottle of good wine, his love of the "heavenly" USSR (Figure 1) and the kindness be showed to the few students that he had. There are, however, other facets of Childe's personality that come across in these letters, including his dry sense of humour and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, evidence that he did sometimes enjoy archaeological fieldwork, just a little (cf. Green 1981: 64). All the letters and postcards have been transcribed for Antiquity (see below) and the originals may be seen in the supplement to this article at http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/stevenson330.

R.B.K. Stevenson attended Childe's one-year 'ordinary' course in the third year of his Classics MA degree at the University of Edinburgh, where Childe was at that time the Abercromby Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology (see Ralston 2009). He also spent a month excavating with Childe at Larriban in 1935 and proof-read some of his books (e.g. Childe 1939, 1940, 1947). Immediately before and after the War the two met occasionally for walks across the Braid Hills and my grandparents provided him with a place to stay on his visits to Edinburgh after he had left the city to take up a position at the Institute of Archaeology in London. During the War R.B.K. Stevenson was posted to Italy, as he was fluent in the language and while in the country he undertook research into the Neolithic pottery there (Stevenson 1947). As Childe noted in the preface to his fourth edition of The dawn of European civilisation this research inspired him "to attempt a new account of Italian prehistory". On my grandfather's return to Scotland it was Childe who supported his appointment to the position of Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities and it is from around this time that the correspondence published here dates.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The first letter, dated 3 February 1945 (Figure 2), was written while Childe was the acting Director of the National Antiquities of Scotland. It concerns my grandfather's appointment to replace him and captures Childe's excitement at the prospect of Russia's part in the expected victory at the end of the Second World War. Childe also jests about his Marxist leanings, such as in his suggestions that the position of Director first be advertised in the Russian newspapers, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and that Museum's text-panels be written in Cyrillic, with quotations taken from Engels and Stalin. Although this comes across as very tongue-in-cheek, it might be the case that this humorous tone was also a way to convey to a 'non-believer', such as my grandfather, very real interests (Elizabeth Stevenson, pers. comm.; cf. Trigger 1980: 18). The second letter, marked 'confidential', was posted from Rinyo, Orkney, in July 1943. It includes an account of his excavations there (Childe & Grant 1947: 34-8) and his interest in what was emerging in the field. …

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