Monday, February 16, 2015

V. Gordon Childe: From Form to Functionalism

V. Gordon Childe, an Australian archaeologist working in the first half of the 20th century, came at the tail end of a period in the development of archaeology referred to by Bruce Trigger in A History of Archaeological Thought as antiquarianism. Now possessing pejorative connotations, this term describes the classical and eventually prehistoric archaeological excavations from the Renaissance through the beginning of the 20th century. While some of these antiquarians produced adequate documentation of their excavations and paid attention to stratigraphic levels, their process was largely deductive, and many were primarily concerned with obtaining decorative items for their private collections.

In his essay “Prehistory and Marxism” (1979), published posthumously in Antiquity, Childe derogatorily refers to his predecessors as “relicologists because they are generally so preoccupied with the forms of relics that they forget that the relics were made by men to satisfy some human need” (95). He goes on to distinguish himself from “a certain Nazi who devoted many pages to the classification of ‘axes’ by shape and section without ever asking himself what they were used for” (95). In my opinion, this distinction is one of Childe’s most important contributions to archaeological theory: rather than the antiquarian focus on stylistic differences (form), he attempts to infer the underlying function of archaeological artifacts.

Initially, Childe subscribed to the purely culture-historical approach espoused by, among others, German archaeologist and linguist Gustaf Kossinna. Childe utilized Kossinna’s concept of culture, which delimited groups of people according to material culture typologies. The nomenclature used by these theorists belies a preferencing of the artifacts themselves over the peoples who created them. For instance, another 19th century German archaeologist, Friedrich Klopfleisch, named a European Neolithic group the Linearbandkeramik after a decorative technique of incising pottery with linear bands. Rather than using material culture as a lens through which to learn about past lifeways and ideologies, the proponents of cultural-historical archaeology viewed the artifacts as ends in of themselves. Like board game pieces, these stylized ceramics and stone tools were seen not as objects with a social history but as unambiguous proxies for demarcating the migration of, for example, the “Linear Band Ceramic Culture” across temporal and spatial scales.

However, with his exposure to Soviet archaeology and growing appreciation of Marxist theory, Childe grew critical of this purely correlative approach. As espoused in the above diatribe against so-called “relicologists,” he began to investigate not only how artifacts appear to us now, but also how they could have appeared to their creators. He calls the Marxist approach to archaeology “dialectical materialism,” which acknowledges the interplay between economy, environment, social organization, technology and ideology in shaping “culture” (Childe 1979). This interpretation of the term “culture” is dramatically different from his own definition, expressed in “Peoples and Cultures in Prehistoric Europe” two decades prior: “groups of distinctive traits, mostly peculiarities in material culture…[that] tend to hang together and be associated in a given continuous region at a given time” (1933).

Childe’s increasingly functionalist perspective is directly tied to his newfound characterization of “culture.” When culture was solely material, one could be an archaeologist and understand cultures simply by observing artifacts and their distributions. As culture became an increasingly complex product of both material and immaterial forces, however, acknowledging the function of artifacts became vital. After all, the immaterial factors at play (e.g. ideology, social hierarchy, political system, and even economy) cannot be excavated. Instead, through a series of inferences based on material objects in context it is possible to reconstruct some of the various components that interacted dialectically to comprise a particular culture. While structural functionalism is criticized for its determinism and lack of opportunity for individual agency, it was an innovative steppingstone, championed by Childe in his later writings, which transformed archaeology from an antiquarian treasure hunt to a methodological pursuit of knowledge. 


Childe, V.G. 1933. "Races, Peoples and Cultures in Prehistoric Europe." History 71(18):193-203.
Childe, V. G. 1979. "Prehistory and Marxim." Antiquity 53(208):93-95.
Trigger, B. 1996. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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