Childe and Civilisation

Childe on Civilisation

Whenever archaeologists discuss civilisation, they always go back to a paper written in the 1950s by the most famous, and one might almost say notorious historian of the time, Gordon Childe.


An unusually formal photo of Gordon Childe taken in the 1930s in Autralia (Wikipedia)

Childe was a Marxist, and his Marxism provided the stimulus for much of his thought. By origin he  was an Australian who came over here, wrote a very scholarly book on The Danube in Prehistory – a subject which no other British archaeologist had ever studied, but was vital in showing how the archaeology in Britain could be linked to the archaeology of the Near East. He wrote two popular books: Man Makes Himself with the unspoken sub-text that God did not, and then What Happened in History a run-through from the Palaeolithic (‘Savagery’) through to the fall of the Roman empire, with a particular emphasis on the rise of towns in the Near East (even if he degenerates into Marxist claptrap for much of his later account of the Roman empire).

Childe was an immensely stimulating thinker, perhaps because he was a Marxist and he made a real stab at establishing what made civilisation, or rather what made a city, because he was trying to tell how the cities of the Near East of Mesopotamia and Egypt differed from the Neolithic villages that he had studied so intensely along the Danube.

He published the article in what is for archaeologists a somewhat obscure journal The Town Planning Review, no doubt because he thought it was a subject that town planners should be interested in. Fortunately the original paper is now available on the web. He gives ten criteria, not as a list, but with a paragraph length description of each. Let me perhaps summarise – though I find to my surprise that what he said he was defining was not civilisation, but cities, and how they differed from villages.

The first rather obvious point is that cities were more extensive and more densely populated than previous settlements. There was in effect a leap in size of settlement in somewhere around 3000 BC. The larger settlements led to the second point, the emergence of full time professional craftsmen who did not have to procure their own food and could therefore become merchants, officials and priests – the latter of course being a particularly useless occupation in Childe’s eyes.

The third criterion is that the peasants began to pay a tithe or tax to an ‘imaginary’ deity or a divine king’: Childe does not give any evidence for this, though he is surely right. The fourth criterion follows on from this, that the divine kings began to build truly monumental public buildings which in Sumeria meant temples. He also noted that attached to the temples were workshops, magazines and granaries.

The next three criteria show Childe riding his Marxist hobby horse: criteria five is the emergence of a ruling class exempt from all manual tasks, which is probably true but not something that can be deduced directly from archaeology. However the needs of administration leads to the invention of writing, or the use of engraved seals for proclaiming the ownership of the bags of grain that were sealed up – and writing is certainly something that can be seen in the archaeology.

Criterion seven is then the ‘elaboration of exact and predictive sciences’, in particular calendars to determine the passing of the seasons. Calendars are indeed known from the Babylonian texts, though the mid-summer sunrise orientation of Stonehenge suggests that even in our far-off ‘barbarian’ society, calendars of a sort were known.

The eighth criterion is the emergence of art, of full time sculptors, painters or seal engravers. He argues that savages, even in Palaeolithic times, depicted animals: he is no doubt thinking of the painted caves of France; but he says that Neolithic peasants never created art, it was only with the emergence of towns that art emerges. This is an interesting, though perhaps controversial criterion.

For his ninth criterion, he comes back to a truly archaeological criterion: trade. I always say that the driver for trade was the need to make bronze, bringing together copper and tin, two metals that are rarely found together, though Childe prefers to emphasize luxuries.

The tenth and final criterion is more hypothetical but nevertheless very interesting in that he argues that whereas before, specialist craftsman such as bronze-smiths had been itinerant, that is they travelled round from village to village because no agricultural village ever produced enough surplus to support a full-time bronze smith, now a city could suport t hem, and thus bronze smiths and other specialist workers could settle down permanently. Again an interesting concept, though see my page on Epidaurus, which shows that in classical Greece, specialist builders and sculptors could and did travel around.

This, like all Childe’s works, is extremely interesting and in a way even more interesting today than it was at the time because it challenges us to say how far his concepts have been disproved by more recent archaeology, and how far when we disagree it is because our fashions today differ from the fashions of 70 years ago. What I think he does establish is that there was indeed an urban revolution in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and indeed India sometime around 3000 BC in which towns did become bigger, writing was invented, and huge temples, pyramids or palaces were erected. (And it is interesting to see what Childe brings in and what he omits. He brings in Mesopotamia, that is the Sumerians, and Egypt and India, and to some extent the Maya in America. He omits the Minoans who were admittedly a millennium later, which means that he also omits the importance of palaces. And also strangely he totally omits China).

Where I differ from him, or perhaps I would say, where I add to his work is that I add in a Money Revolution with the coming of the Greeks and Romans, bringing in an entirely different market-place based society. Looking back I realise that how different was the archaeology that I grew up with in the mid-twentieth century which was dominated by prehistory. The great excitement in the 1930s had been the recognition of the great Bronze Age cities of Mesopotamia and working out the details of the Bronze Age in prehistoric Europe, distinguishing between beakers and food vessels. Then in the 1960s there was the excitement of the advent of radiocarbon which enabled us to give real dates to prehistory, dates that almost always proved to be older than had been expected. And at the same time the study of Greece and Rome lagged behind with the study of Greek pottery still the province of art historians, and with only a few errant classicists realising that Hadrian’s Wall had a long and complex history.

I think that it is only today that the classical civilisation of Greece and Rome are being studied with the same archaeological philosophy that has animated the study of Prehistory (and one might say the Middle Ages). We can begin to look at Greece and Rome as archaeologists, analysing their cities and the totally new layouts based around the market place; and we can look again at the countryside, at the undefended villas marking the results of peace and prosperity but being imposed upon a countryside where peasant villages not only survived but indeed thrived under the Roman market economy.

I still like to believe that the history of the Pleistocene can be divided into three revolutions: the Neolithic Revolution, the Money Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. But perhaps I am persuaded by Childe that there should really be three and a half revolutions, and that between the Neolithic Revolution and the Money Revolution there was also an Urban Revolution.

On to Barbarism and Civilisation

11th August 2016