1.2 The advent of Childe – the Idea Rebuilt

At this point begins, very suddenly, the second phase of Neolithic research in Scotland.  Vere Gordon Childe is appointed to the newly established Abercromby Chair in the winter of 1926-27 – a man of single-minded and seemingly boundless energy who had already reshaped contemporary thought about early farming prehistory.  In 1925 he had published The Dawn of European Civilisation in which was evolved, quite suddenly, an entirely new vision of archaeological material – encompassing in both the widest geographical sense and in the totality of its view of the local context.  The ‘archaeological culture’, was much more than the sum of its parts.  Hitherto with a few hesitant further steps within the Worsaaen approach, most archaeologists had looked only at the parts.  Now the archaeological imagination was liberated, but offered a disciplinary framework , a model, within which it could operate efficiently, usefully and consistently.

The Accumulation of Data

Childe had virtually no extended experience of excavation but was almost immediately invited by the Office of Works to conduct excavation in advance of consolidation of the site at Skara Brae, Orkney.  He was also elected a Fellow of SoAS in 1927, immediately on his arrival, and was a member of Council by 1930 – he was, in other words, well-integrated into Scottish Archaeology (although his unorthodox persona inevitably alienated some of the more conservative element).  What was the effect of this integration?

  • Orkney replaces the Northern Mainland as a ‘laboratory’ for Scottish Archaeology.  ‘Anderson Land’ becomes ‘Childe/ultimately Renfrew Land’.  This imbalance still to some extent embarrasses the discipline, just as the former did.
  • Skara Brae was ultimately well dealt with in narrative, but not in detail.  Consequently as an internationally important site it has generated its own harvest of off-shoot projects of which (including Rinyo) none have been thus far adequately published.  Childe went on digging important sites on Orkney at the peak of his reputation.
  • ‘The Neolithic agenda’ is subsumed by Childe and for some years his reports of Skara Brae PSAS 63 (1928-29), PSAS 64 (1929-30), PSAS 65 (1930-31), 22-77 (Callender J.G. Relics from Skara Brae). Childe also excavated Kindrochat Chambered Tomb,  PSAS 65 (1929-30), 78-114) and Chambered Tombs at Kilfillan, Argyll (PSAS 66 (1931-32).  He also conducted work at Old Keig Recumbent Stone Circle, Abers. (PSAS 68, 1933 -34) when his research students Margaret Mitchell and Howard Kilbride-Jones also played a part carrying out work in Neolithic sites  (Mitchell at Nether Largie Chambered Tomb (PSAS 64 (1929-30) and Kilbride-Jones – Recumbent stone circles at Loanhead of Daviot and Cullerlie (PSAS 69 (1934-35) 168-223).  Margaret Mitchell also was to publish her Doctoral thesis in PSAS 68 (1933-34), 132-89, on A New Analysis of Beaker pottery.

Sir W. Lindsay Scott was a close friend of Childe from the latter’s days in London as librarian of the Royal Anthropological Institute.  After service in the Great War he became a civil servant living in London. With Childe’s encouragement he excavated the Chambered Cairn at Ruath an Dunain, Isle of Skye (PSAS 68 (1933-34), 194-223, that at Clettraval, N.Uist (PSAS 69 (1934-35), 480-536) and that at Unival, N Uist (conducted in 1935 and 1939 and fully published in PSAS 82 (1947-48), 1-49).  In 1937 he undertook the excavation of the island occupation site at Eilean an Tighe, N Uist (PSAS 85 (1950-51), 1-37).

Childe’s excavation at Skara Brae had brought him close Orcadian associates, among them Walter Grant who went on to excavate a number of Orcadian chambered cairns (Westness, Rousay (PSAS 68 (1933-34), 71-73), and Taversoe Tuick (PSAS 73 (1938-39), 6-31).  His initial work at Rinyo led to Childe taking over the work in 1938.  J.G. Callender, Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities and C.S.T. Calder, Investigator in RCAHMS, were also active at this time in Neolithic matters.  Callender, one may suspect in direct response to Childe’s influence, pursued his Neolithic interests excavating three of the long stalled cairns of Orkney (Knowe of Yarso (PSAS 69 (1934-35), 325-51) (Knowe of Rousay PSAS 70(1935-36), 407-19) and (Blackhammer PSAS 71 (1936-37), 297-308).

Altogether this was a magnificent display of the outcome of archaeological energy in the twelve years between 1927 and the advent of the Second World War.  It furnished a massive accession to the data available for interpretation and broadened, quite intentionally on Childe’s part, the geographical evenness with which the country was covered.  The development of research in Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and the Western Isles was to balance previous emphasis on Caithness and Orkney and where work continued in Orkney emphasis shifted towards settlement archaeology and broadened approaches to funerary sites.

The Childe Synthesis

A great deal of this influx of data was available to Childe for synthesis into The Prehistory of Scotland (1935) – a stunning achievement for its time – unrivalled elsewhere in Europe and a more than worthy successor to Anderson’s innovative volume.  The Prehistory of Scotland, however, stands prominently as the inspiration, whether by reaction or support, for all subsequent work on the period.  In the course of two chapters the Neolithic in Scotland is given its current ‘shape’ in terms of its material culture and its classification – with the exception, perhaps, of Grooved Ware which Childe was only to understand correctly by 1938.  This is not to suggest that there is any single component of which our understanding has not changed since 1935, one we may especially choose to eschew some of its ‘migrationist’ content, but the origins of our current state of knowledge are all visible there.  It was a profoundly revolutionary decade for the evolution of the Scottish Neolithic in a way that it was not for any other period.

The Second World War, of course, brought a quite sudden break to this extraordinary period of development.  Childe spent the war writing a number of ‘generalist’ archaeological titles “What happens in History” ” (1942) and “Progress and Archaeology”(1945) among them, but also produced Prehistoric Scotland (1940) a revision of the 1935 synthesis; carrying out the assessment and rapid survey of sites threatened by war-work with Angus Graham, and after the death of Edwards in 1943, the general direction of the National Museum prior to R.B.K. Stevenson’s return from war service.  In 1940 he did further service for Scottish prehistory by publishing in 1940 Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles a synthesis of British prehistory within which Scottish developments at all periods were accorded appropriate attention and incorporated within the over-arching narrative. (cf. Prehistoric England by J.G.D Clark, published in the same year)  This precedent imposed additional responsibilities upon Scottish researchers which had, perhaps, not received appropriate emphasis previously; and simultaneously ventilated, illuminated and stimulated research at every level and in all parts of the United Kingdom.

With the end of the War came changes of personnel across archaeology in Scotland and the valedictory survey by Childe, Scotland before the Scots,(1946), in which some of the ‘migrationist’ excesses of Prehistoric Communities were softened in order to lend weight to a more formally Marx/Engels related view of socio-economic stages of development – a treatment that Childe himself felt was more appropriate than his 1935 approach, and which certainly has, in some quarters, complied more readily with the thinking of the decades since 1946.

However, as Scotland’s archaeology came out of its Anderson shelter in 1946 (to use Stuart Piggott’s expression) there remained enormous challenges to face.  The archaeology of the Neolithic, as understood, was still almost entirely the archaeology of upstanding monuments.  There was no chronology that could be said to be clearly indicative of succession in the Neolithic and indeed the duration of the period was wholly misunderstood.  Excavation standards were, even with respect to the temporal limitations, below the standards of much that was being accomplished elsewhere in Britain.  And thus begins the third phase of research into the Scottish Neolithic.

Leave a Reply