7 MARCH 1958, Page 21


Great Prehistorian

By GLYN DAN IEL I!■1 the middle of the last war, disillusioned by its futility, disheartened by its destruction, and convinced that, whatever the outcome, Europe would sink back into the barbarism of a new ark Age, Gordon Childe wrote What Happened 1,!1 History. It was intended in 1942 as a primer for all to read of the results of a century and more

archwological research. Published by Penguin

ooks it became one of their best sellers and Indeed sold over a ,third of a million' copies in three years. Now, fifteen years later, Childe has given us another best-selling primer.* Published only a few months after his sudden death in Australia, it is the last general statement by this great prehistorian of what he thought happened in Prehistory.

Gordon Childe was, by general consent, the doyen of European scholars working in the field 9f prehistoric archaeology generally referred to, to terms of the outworn divisions of the three- age system, as the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. He had travelled everywhere, seemed to uave visited all museums and private collections, and to read all European languages with ease. For these reasons alone his latest, and last book demands the serious attention of everyone inter- ested in the beginnings of European society; it is the only short readable account of Europe be- tween the end of the Ice Age and the Mycenean period which any reputable scholar has found time and opportunity to write for us. '

The professional archieologist and the student have well-documented and scholarly guides to Preclassical Europe. Childe's own Dawn of European Civilisation, first published in 1925, is a standard work and the sixth revised edition was brought out only a few weeks before his death. Professor Hawkes's Prehistoric Foilndations of Europe (1940) and Professor Grahame Clark's Prehistoric Europe (1952) are two more such standard basic works of scholarly reference. But this-

trilogy is hard going for the general historical

reader and he can hardly be expected to get a great deal out of them. Indeed, Childe, recognising that the essential prehistory he was trying to write In The Dawn was 'presented . . . in technical language buried under a forbidding accumulation of outlandish culture names and references to obscure periodicals,' deliberately wrote this new Pelican 'to outline the argument in simpler terms and without abstruse and often inconclusive archmological documentation.'

On the whole, he has succeeded; this is a read- able book even though there are still outlandish culture names and technical references, and, of Course, let us admit there can be no real prehistory Without them. Childe first portrays the societies that inherited and peopled post-glacial Europe, then the spread among these Mesolithic folk of Neolithic peasant farmers, and the development of a European Neolithic economy. At first this economy is based on mixed farming and a shifting agriculture, but it gradually changes its emphasis

THE PREHISTORY OF EUROPI.AN SOCIETY. By Gordon Childe. (Penguin Books, 3s. 6d.)

to pastoralism. He quotes with approval Krichev- skii's ideas that an economy that employed stock- breeding and hunting would be the most produc- tive way of exploiting the European soil with a Neolithic equipment, and that the emergence of warlike hunting tribes in late Neolithic Europe was the result of an internal development of the older Neolithic societies and `the separation from the latter of the groups that had been the first to concentrate upon the more profitable pursuit of stock-breeding.'

Childe then traces the development of Early Bronze Age trading townships on the iEgean coasts and islands while emphasising that many of them were still 'absurdly small'—Troy I just over an acre, Troy II less than two acres, and Phylakopi on Melos little more than four acres. He sees the establishment of a Bronze Age economy in the IEgean between 3000 and 2000 Bc as 'promoted by Oriental capital as truly as the industrialisation of India and Japan in the nine- teenth century was affected by British and Ameri- can capital,' and he considers the voyages of iEgean traders to the West Mediterranean around 2000 Bc as comparable in a general way with the later Phoenician and Greek colonies—but, only; he insists, in a general way. It is the collective tombs of Sicily, Sardinia, south France and Iberia that most clearly mark the westward path of these ,Egean traders and prospectors, and he is right in insisting that 'these cemeteries do not represent a single culture or even a single cycle in the sense that the cemeteries attached to the historical Greek colonies do and that none of the several cultures represented has an exact counterpart in the iEgean or anywhere in the East Mediterranean.'

Childe, with most prehistorians, sees the megalithic tombs of western Europe as a transla- tion of the rock-cut and dry-walled tombs of these IEgean settlers into great stone buildings, but he is almost at a loss to explain the nature of the spread of these tombs. Rejecting Sir Mortimer Wheeler's 'travelling undertakers' and the prosaic prospectors and colonists of most archreologists, he compares the builders of these tombs, in a startling passage on the missionaries of the megalithic religion, with the-Celtic saints. 'Are not the megalithic tombs of Britain the counter- parts,' he asks, 'of the little chapels founded by Welsh and Irish saints in much the same parts of the British Isles? If so their founders might be called megalithic saints and owe their authority and status to spiritual prestige rather than tem- poral power.'

Leaving us gasping at these new but former- day saints, Childe describes briefly the establish- ment of a metallurgical industry in temperate Europe, and then, at about 1500 Bc, stops sud- denly, leaving us high and dry. It is as if, in the last few pages, he had despaired of writing more : the book stops in a few jerky general statements, and all is over. If the preface had not been dated June I. 1957. o" would have suspected that the book waF incomplete at the time of his death. But no, he was not really interested in the forma.; tive first millennium BC of European prehistory and there is nothing in this book about Celts and Ligurians and Iberians, about nuraghi and La Tene art, about hill forts and Venetic ships, about cauldrons, tree-coffins and bog-bodies. It must be said clearly that this is only half the story of European prehistory, and a gap yawns from Mycerne to Rome, from the Pelynt dagger to Pytheas, from Unetice to the sack of Entremont.

But what we do have is admirable and must be read by all, not only for its facts, but for the way Childe is trying to look at the facts. He tells us that he was really concerned in answering two fundamental questions in the history of Europe. The first was how civilisation came to Europe; 5,000 years ago the natives of Europe were on the same level of material equipment and economic organisation as the natives of eastern North America in pre-Columban times. 'Why, then,' asks Childe, 'did they not remain illiterate Stone. Age barbarians as the Red Indians and Papuans did?' His answer to this question is the proximity of Europe to the ancient civilisations of the Near East, and the spread of elements of such civilisa- tions to Europe in the 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. No one is better able than Childe to answer this first question and it is largely due to his lifework of research and synthesis that we now have a reasonably clear map of the migrations and cultures of prehistoric Europe instead of the guesswork and vague generalisations that mas- queraded as prehistory in the first quarter of this century.

The second question is, How could European barbarians outstrip their Oriental masters as they have done?; but this question does not really belong to the prehistory of European society and Childe, while he poses it, does not answer it. Nor does he answer the question posed in the sub- title of his book, 'How and why the prehistoric

barbarian societies of Europe behaved in a dis- tinctively European way.' Nor is it really possible to answer such a question. Prehistoric archaeology is still a descriptive subject; so much.of what we want to know is withheld front us by the limita- tions of the archmological method. Without writ- ing, we cannot really speculate about the ideas and personalities of the past; the how and the

why and the wherefore may always escape us. It is one of the tantalising aspects of being a pre- historian that we can be informed of how Tollund man died, and what was his last meal, and how many hours he ate it (and shaved) before he died; but no one can tell us his name and his thoughts, and whether he indeed behaved in a distinctively European way.