Sunday, February 15, 2015

V.G. Childe, Antiquarianism, and Postcolonialism

Looking at the writings of V. Gordon Childe, one could assume that he represented a clean break from antiquarianism and a decisive step towards modern, even postcolonial, archaeology. While his theories were certainly advanced and contributed much to the development of the modern discipline of archaeology, I believe his theories and particular brand of Marxism represent instead a move from antiquarianism into colonialism, that perhaps foreshadows some postcolonial constructions but also retains other, important vestiges of antiquarian thought. 

Reading critically into Childe's description of archaeological Marxism in his article "Prehistory and Marxism," we can see several assumptions that carry a colonial perspective. One of the most fundamental of these is the value Childe places on the correlation between social complexity and technological progress. Working off the "logical series" of savagery, barbarism, and civilization defined by Morgan, Childe sees the work of archaeology as the uncovering of the technological progresses that guide societies through this series over time. While it is important that he takes into account the fundamentally changeable nature of society, thus defying traditional antiquarian models of society, this progression is still very Eurocentric, assuming that all societies will be forced by the primacy of technological efficiency to develop over time into variants of European society. It is only a small step from this position to the justification of colonial rule as an expedient in this technological development. 

On the other hand, some of Childe's Marxist constructions seem to challenge this colonial discourse. For instance, Childe's definition of dialectical materialism focuses on the interaction and adaptation that takes place between the various material realities of environment and society to create different societal forms. By doing so, Childe then comes to the conclusion that one cannot study contemporary preliterate societies as a direct analogy for prehistoric ones at the same technological stage, a clear refutation of Morgan's hypothesis. Yet, at the same time, this view also leads Childe to believe that it is almost impossible to understand the ideologies of prehistorical societies. This view echoes those of antiquarians who believed they could understand little of any society without written documentation. In addition, this view also puts the power of interpretation squarely in the hands of those with access to the most artifacts. Since Marxist archaeology is so materially based, its foundation lies in the accumulation and comparison of vast quantities of material evidence. Since colonial archaeology claimed so many significant artifacts for Western institutions, this understanding of archaeology privileges Western institutions and maintains a neo-colonialist concentration of knowledge, and knowledge production, in the academies of the Occident. Thus, Childe's Marxist archaeology occupies an important middle ground, an outgrowth of antiquarianism that retained some of its assumptions but also challenged many of its applications, and a ideology of colonialism that nonetheless established some principles that could created opportunities for challenging colonial hegemony. These theories can be still useful to postcolonial archaeology as long as their contexts are appropriately interrogated. 

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