Why is so much modern archaeological theory so dull?
What set me thinking about this was reading Terry Irving’s The Fatal Lure of Politics: the life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe. Though not so much an archaeological text as an analysis of how Childe’s lifelong political activism shaped his academic work, I can still strongly recommend it to CWA readers who want to get a handle on Childe as a seminal thinker.
The standard treatment – in most archaeological discourse – is to discount Childe’s politics. Wearing red ties, walking around with a copy of the Daily Worker in his pocket, mixing with a set of bohemian North London lefties: this gets written off as so much eccentricity, like his taste for baggy shorts, expensive cars, and champagne.
Irving has killed that idea stone dead. Childe was a great archaeologist because he was a radical political activist. That is the central message of this new biography.
Archaeology was Childe’s second career. Only when the massive wave of class conflict that raged in his native Australia before, during, and after the First World War died down did he switch from a career in Australian labour politics to one in British academic archaeology.
I can remember the huge impact of my first readings of Childe, especially What Happened in History (which may be the best-selling archaeology book ever written).
Pyramids? Greek temples? Medieval cathedrals? So much waste expenditure by parasitic elites. Mesopotamian priest-kings? Roman emperors? Stifling barriers to progress.
Central to Childe’s conception of history was the creative potential of hunters, farmers, craftworkers, engineers, and scientists – encapsulated in the title of another of his most-popular books, Man Makes Himself – and the way in which elites wasted surpluses on wars, monuments, and luxuries, and also blocked innovation lest it disrupt the status quo.
The more wealth gets sucked upwards, the more technologically stagnant society becomes. The more prosperous the working population, the more resources they have, the less under the cosh they are, the more new ideas and methods can flourish.
A special focus for Childe was metalworking. He saw the itinerant bronzeworkers of the 2nd millennium BC – moving around, sharing ideas, beholden to no one, selling their wares on their own terms – among the key players of the Bronze Age world. He understood that iron technology could not have been developed inside the fossilised great civilisations of the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean, but could only emerge in the freer conditions of the distant north.
Iron was as revolutionary in its day as steam power and computer technology would later be. You can find iron all over the place. The problem was learning how to smelt the stuff. Once the breakthrough came, it changed the world. Labour productivity and agricultural output soared. Civilisations tumbled as Bronze Age lords were toppled from their chariots by phalanxes of farmers armed with iron-tipped spears.
In Childe’s vision of the past, we see human beings in a dialectical relationship with the natural world mediated by technological innovation. His heroes – his makers and shakers – are the inventors.
It is no accident that Childe compares ancient metalworkers with the skilled working class of his own times – that is, with the class with whom he was so closely associated in his formative years as a labour activist.
Humans making and remaking the world are at the very heart of Childe’s work. It is the real foundation of all his great theoretical contributions.
What have we had since? Often a retreat into dreary empiricism, a mere piling up of data for its own sake, a sort of archaeological stamp-collecting. If not, one turgid text after another on ‘cultural identity’, many of them impenetrable jungles of jargon with no discernible meaning.
Why is this so dull? Because, unlike the work of Vere Gordon Childe, it is theory divorced from practical human activity.