Childhood & Early Life
V. Gordon Childe was born on April 14, 1892 in Sydney, New South Wales and was the only surviving child of the Reverend Stephen Henry and Harriet Eliza Childe.
Stephen was a second-generation Anglican priest and his first wife was Mary Ellen Latchford. The family moved to Australia in 1878 where Mary died. Stephen then married Harriet in 1886 and the five children from his previous marriage became Gordon’s half-siblings.
Owing to his poor health as a child, he received his primary schooling at home before matriculating from the Sydney Church Of England Grammar School in 1910. Although he was a good student in school he was bullied because of his strange appearance and un-athletic physique.
His mother passed away in 1910 and his father married Monica Gardiner. The death of Gordon’s mother and the disagreements on subjects of religion and politics with his father left him lonely.
He graduated from the University of Sydney in 1914 with a B.A. and won the University Medal, Professor Francis Anderson’s prize for philosophy and the (Sir) Daniel Cooper graduate scholarship.
With the £200 Cooper scholarship, Gordon went to study at Queen’s College, Oxford University. He was awarded a B.Litt. in 1916 for research on Indo-European archaeology and next year obtained first-class honors in literae humaniores (humane letters).
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V. Gordon Childe returned to Australia in 1917 and a year later was accepted by the St. Andrew’s College as their Senior Resident Tutor. However, he was forced to resign by the Principal when he participated and spoke in the Third Inter-State Peace Conference.
Owing to his good academic record, the staff-members found work for him in the Department of Tutorial Classes, but the Chancellor, Sir William Cullen, cancelled his appointment fearing that he might preach socialism to the students. This infringement of Gordon’s civil rights was reported in the Australian Parliament by William McKell and T.J.Smith.
Gordon began teaching Latin at the Maryborough Grammar School (Queensland) in 1918, but resigned shortly as he was subjugated to harassment on the account of his (socialist) political affiliations.
In his desperate search of a job that would promise security and stability he became the private secretary and speech writer to centre-left politician John Storey in 1919. A year later, Storey became the state premier of New South Wales.
In 1921, Gordon went to London on Storey’s orders to update the British press about the developments in New South Wales. However, after Storey’s death the newly elected Premier, George Fuller, terminated Gordon’s employment in 1922.
V. Gordon Childe stayed back in London and spent much of his time studying at the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute library. Soon he became known as an excellent pre-historian.
In 1922, he travelled to the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, to examine unpublished material about the painted Neolithic pottery from Bukovina.
In 1923, he became a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute and two years later, its librarian. He also penned three books titled ‘How Labor Governs’, ‘The Dawn of European civilization’ and ‘The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins’ in the 1920s.
In 1927, he became the first Abercromby professor of prehistoric archeology at the University of Edinburgh; a post established by deed poll in the bequest of prehistorian Lord John Abercromby.
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From 1928 to 1930 he supervised the excavation of the Skara Brae Stone Village in the Orkney Islands, Scotland and unearthed a well-preserved Neolithic village. He published his findings in the book ‘Skara Brae’ but committed an error when he attributed the site to the Iron-Age.
He (along with other anthropologists) excavated two Iron Age hillforts in Berwickshire (1932), a promontory fort in Northern Ireland (1935), two vitrified Iron Age forts in Scotland (1933–37) and a Neolithic settlement in Rinyo (1938).
In 1946, he was elected as the Director and Professor of European Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology (IOA) in London. In spite of being popular among students, his lecturing skills were considered poor.
V. Gordon Childe was invited to the U.S. on multiple occasions by renowned anthropologists and archaeologists like Robert Braidwood, William Strong and Leslie White to give lectures, but he was barred from entering the country on the basis of his socialist beliefs.
He retired from the post of IOA Director in 1956 (a year prematurely) and also donated most of his library and estate to the institution. It is believed that at that time he told his friends that he wished to go back to Australia, visit his relatives and then commit suicide.
V. Gordon Childe is considered a trailblazer in the field of prehistory because he studied the religious, economic, legal, political, and sociological structures of primitive societies and linked them with the relevant studies in anthropology, geology, biology, zoology and paleontology. He became an early proponent of culture-historical archaeology and Marxist archaeology.
Awards & Achievements
In 1936, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by Harvard and the next year, a doctorate of science by Pennsylvania State University. Also, he was appointed as a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the British Academy.
He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries for his services to archaeology in 1956.
Personal Life & Legacy
On October 19, 1957 V. Gordon Childe fell 1000 feet to his death from the Govett’s Leap in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. His remains were cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium.
Before his death he had sent a letter to his friend, William Francis Grimes, and requested him not to open it till 1968. Upon opening the letter, it was found out that Gordon feared old age and was getting suicidal.
Although at the time of Gordon’s death the coroner ruled it as an accidental death, but the letter to Grimes and the finding of his hat, spectacles, pipe and Mackintosh at the site from where he fell to his death hint towards a pre-planned suicide.