Loading Events



The invention of prehistory and the rediscovery of Europe: Exploring the deeper intellectual roots of Gordon Childe’s early writings (1925-1936)

Dr Maxime Brami, RAI Library Fellow 2018

Thursday 19 April at 5.30 pm

If the 18th century was the century of the rediscovery of man, in all his varieties, through voyages of exploration and Enlightenment ideas, the 19th century was undoubtedly the century of the rediscovery of Europe, of its deep past and its barbarian roots. A new scientific era, ushered in by Uniformitarianism and Darwin’s theory of Evolution, brought many established ideas crashing to the ground, especially the biblical paradigm of Creation: suddenly it became obvious that the world was older than 4004 BC; that there were men (like us) before the Flood; and that we were not descended from Adam and Eve, but from other life forms, probably the ape.

The collapse of the biblical frame of reference and, especially, of the short or biblical chronology, left a vacuum – thousands, if not millions of years of history to account for before the invention of writing. Prehistory emerged at the confluence of written and natural history, and was called to play a central role in the construction of national identities. For prehistory was regarded from the outset as the period of great migrations, the ‘race-making period’, as opposed to history, the ‘nation-making period’. Who brought civilization to Europe became a major field of enquiry at the turn of the 20th century: it was Aryan ‘race’ against Magdalenian cave-painters, Neanderthal against Cro-Magnon, Celtic tribes in the Neolithic, and the fabrication of Piltdown Man… in short, an incredible mishmash of supposed and actual prehistoric facts, used to wage an ideological war between the French, the Germans and the English. 

Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957) is widely credited for laying the foundations of prehistory – for bringing order, in other words, to an otherwise inchoate field. More a political activist than a prehistorian at the beginning of his career, Childe was also a man without affiliation, an Australian in Europe, in search of this once barbarous continent. Indeed, he was rescued from economic uncertainty by the RAI, who made him their librarian, after which he began to establish himself with academic posts. Continuing on from a seminar that was delivered at the RAI in 2014 on Gordon Childe and the British School of Diffusionism, this seminar will explore the deeper intellectual roots of Childe’s early writings (1925-1936), his evolution from migrationism to diffusionism and functionalism, and his ambition to reunite European prehistory.

A vocal anti-fascist, and very early on so, Childe was not exempt from the many failings of his generation, such as the toxic equation between language, culture and biology, which he held to be true until such a position was made untenable by the rise of national-socialism in Germany. He too used prehistory to do politics and counter the German myth of the Aryans and of their primitive cradle (Urheimat) in Central Europe. But he was above all a man who fought for progress in a world that was gripped by retrogression and the fear of a return to a state of barbarism.

This event is free, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please go to https://raimaximebrami.eventbrite.co.uk

Location : Royal Anthropological Institute
50 Fitzroy Street
United Kingdom