DISCUSSED: Scotland, Farming, The Dawn of Civilization, Red Shirts, Shorty Shorts, Marxist Archaeologists v. Nazi Archaeologists, Hannah Arendt on Revolutions, Cities and Urban Planning, Dinner with Stalin, Indiana Jones, Fashionistas, Tea


On a bright October morning in 1957, V. Gordon Childe, at the time the most famous archaeologist in the world,[1] finished his tea and caught a cab outside the posh Carrington Hotel. He asked the driver to take him to Bridal Veil Falls, a remote peak located high in Australia’s Blue Mountains, Childe’s boyhood home. Childe exited the cab and instructed the cabbie to return at noon so that he could spend the morning studying the local geology and revisiting a much-beloved spot he hadn’t visited in over three decades. The cab left. Childe, after surveying the cool blue haze thousands of feet below, placed his compass and mackintosh on a rock, removed his ever-present pipe and spectacles, and stepped off the edge of the cliff.

For Childe, one of the most influential, brilliant, and iconoclastic archaeologists of the twentieth century, this “fall” was an odd but characteristically lonely move. The few friends who were aware of Childe’s intention to end his life chose to protect his memory rather than to speak out, thus for several decades the public remained unaware that Childe’s death was anything other than an accident. The truth about Childe’s suicide became clear in a statement reprinted in a 1980 issue of the journal Antiquity. The letter, sent by Childe to his successor at the London Institute of Archaeology days before his death, concludes elegiacally: “Life ends best when one is happy and strong.”

Although his major accomplishments were well behind him by 1957, at the time of his death Childe was very much enjoying the perks of minor celebrity and his status as the quintessential elder statesmen of archaeology—lecturing around the globe, pontificating about his work. He had a lot to be proud of: over the course of thirty years, Childe had published dozens of books and articles about the ancient human past that were both popular and critically acclaimed, selling millions of copies around the world.

  1. This is of course discounting Indiana Jones, arguably the best-known (albeit fictional) archaeologist of all time. Although rumor has it that Jones was based on an actual archaeologist (William Flinders Petrie, Hiram Bingham III, Howard Carter, Gordon Childe, James Henry Breasted, and Robert Braidwood make up just the short list of potential inspirations), it seems most likely that the whip-carrying, gun-toting character created by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg was an amalgam of real archaeologists and fictional personas such as the adventurer Harry Steele played by Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas. In any case, Childe’s trademark fedora and leather jacket easily fit into the visual pantheon of ur-Indys. In addition to being name-checked in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Childe is also an eerie doppelgänger of “Toht,” the evil Nazi archaeologist best known for the face-melting retribution he receives in the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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J.T. Thomas teaches anthropology and rhetoric at the University of Iowa. His work on the enigmatic slate burial plaques of Neolithic Iberia has appeared in several archaeological journals. His favorite fruit is the pomegranate.

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