Labour Monthly, November 1942

The Significance of Soviet Archćology
by Professor V Gordon Childe, D.Litt, D.Sc, F.B.A.


Source: Labour Monthly, November 1942, p. 341-343;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


The establishment of the Soviet State gave the first real opportunity for the scientific investigation of the prehistoric treasures buried in the soil of socialised Eurasia and for the application on a large scale to prehistory of the interpretative concepts of Marxism. The great results achieved are less widely appreciated outside the Soviet Union than those obtained in the more practical natural sciences. For, after all, archaeology is a luxury science which can hardly be applied to increasing supplies of food or other forms of tangible wealth nor yet to armament manufacture and which – under capitalism – has in practice only been fully developed in countries that already enjoyed a certain superabundance of such wealth. But in the light of the materialist conception of history the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. recognised the historico-scientific value of archaeological material – consisting, as it largely does, of the instruments of production devised and used by societies of the past.

Accordingly, through all the agonising years of interventionist war and famine, the monuments of antiquity were respected and protected, the collections assembled in Tsarist times were studiously preserved, institutions for their care and study were maintained and extended, co-ordinated under the State Academy of the History of Material Culture (GAIMK). The scientific status of archaeology was explicitly recognised in 1936 by the incorporation of GAIMK in the Academy of Sciences as the Institute for the History of Material Culture (HMK).

Then Tsarist Russia had been as backward archaeologically as it was economically. Most of the old antiquaries had been too dazzled by the glamour of Scythian goldwork to observe thoroughly even the funerary ritual of its former owners (as Rostovtseff admits); in their lust for Greek objets d'art they generally ignored the unsightly remains that really illustrate the life of the native peoples; Asiatic Russia (apart from Transcaucasia) was almost entirely unknown. The grand programme of industrialisation embodied in the Five Year Plans, while it threatened some monuments with destruction, offered an unprecedented chance of correcting this deficiency. Members of GAIMK were therefore officially detailed to survey the regions concerned and to accompany the engineers and builders in order systematically to study and record what was turned up and to collect for the people’s museums the portable objects uncovered. Socialist construction here provides a striking contrast to the methods of private capitalism – remember how the ruins of one of the oldest Indian cities were used as a quarry to ballast a hundred miles of the Karachi-Lahore Railway! The Soviet procedure has set an example to the richest bourgeois states.

At the same time archaeology has been popularised. For it is only with the co-operation of the workers and peasants that its materials can be effectively preserved and collected. So a public museum – the private collector who is often the bane of scientific archaeology under private capitalism has, of course, been liquidated – is not regarded primarily as a laboratory for specialists nor a gallery for connoisseurs, but as an educational institution (as in America). It is decked with models, maps and descriptive labels, and the galleries are relegated to side cases or magazines, where experts can at leisure appreciate the inconspicuous but scientifically significant differences between them. The public cases tell a story. You may call that propaganda if you like. But the story differs from that presented in an American museum mainly in illustrating the life of the peasant as well as the landlord, of the slave as well as the citizen, and so unmasking the reality of the class conflict. In the same spirit, in ethnographic museums the knout and the vodka flask as instruments of imperialist exploitation are not omitted from the case of exhibits illustrating the life of a contemporary savage tribe. In any case the attentive crowds studying in the galleries of Moscow’s Historical Museum give ocular proof of the success of the new arrangement.

Personnel had to be democratised too. The noble antiquary and the merchant collector were not likely to sympathise with the new regime. But most of the professional prehistorians of Tsarist days, notably Gorodtsov, the Nestor of Russian prehistory, have loyally helped to train a new generation and have welcomed the Marxist interpretation – sometimes with the naiveté and unbridled enthusiasm of a new convert.

To enumerate the specific discoveries of Soviet prehistorians or even the most dramatic of them would be tedious and, to most readers, unilluminating. Their nature may be judged by an example from the old Stone Age. This, the first and far the longest chapter in Man’s story, had scarcely been studied in Russia before the Revolution; in France it had been classically studied for nearly a century, in England and Central Europe for more than seventy years. But after all this time Western prehistorians continued to depict our Ice Age forerunners as living, like the Australian aborigines to-day, merely in caves or wind-breaks.

It was left to Gorodtsov and Efimenko, Zamiatnin and Rogachev in the almost virgin soil of the U:S.S.R. to show that the mammoth-hunters actually constructed large and commodious houses in which they could withstand the cold of winters even more severe than now. For with brilliant technique these excavators have recovered from the löss soil the plans of these houses – the actual building materials have perished – so that reliable reconstructions can be made. Gerasimov has discovered palaeolithic houses in Siberia too – at Mal’ta. Incidentally, from this single station have been recovered as many statuettes carved out of mammoth-ivory as from the whole of France.

Now the wealth of new material gathered has been interpreted by novel methods. All prehistorians, of course, try to reanimate the dead bones – to recover the life of prehistoric societies and the environment to which they were adapted with the help of comparisons from modern savages and barbarians living under similar technological and environmental conditions.

But bourgeois prehistory, especially in Tsarist Russia, but to a large extent in Great Britain too, has been dominated by the idea of migrations. All too often has each important technological advance or change in burial rite been “explained” by the assertion that it was “introduced” by fresh “invaders” from some generally remote and unknown cradle. Books on prehistory are overburdened with speculative attempts to trace these invasions. Thus one society after another is brought onto the stage, but being there does nothing till it is replaced by a new society. The real drama of prehistory is thus enacted mysteriously off-stage and merely reported by puppet heralds.

Soviet prehistorians, on the contrary, have made sustained efforts to explain changes in the archaeological material, and even in the anatomical material too, as results of the internal development of societies themselves on lines sketched provisionally by Engels sixty years ago. Bonch-Osmolovskit’s “Old Stone Age in Crimea,” Tretiakov’s “History of pre-class Society on the Upper Volga” and Kraglov and Podgayetskii’s “Gentile Society on the Steppes of Eastern Europe” show how interesting and lively the results of this method can be. These studies of quite restricted areas offer plausible explanations for puzzling phenomena observed all over Europe too. Why, for instance, in the Late Bronze Age when bronze was much commoner than ever before, is the number of metal objects deposited in the graves reduced almost to vanishing point not only in South Russia but also in Denmark, Italy and Britain?

Incidentally, the method indicated provides a better ideological defence against the pretensions of Nazi imperialism than the expedient adopted by bourgeois prehistorians. German writers claim to trace with archaeological evidence ethnic movements wherein a flood of Nordic “Indo-Germans” (“Aryans”) from Germany spread victoriously over Italy, the Balkans, South Russia and even the Caucasus. After 1914 Keith, Myres, Peake and the present writer tried to reverse this alleged migration and to bring Indo-Europeans and Nordics from South Russia even to Germany. But Krichevskii in 1932 showed that the archaeological changes hailed by the Pan-Germanists as results of, and evidences for, a Nordic invasion of the Danube basin from Germany could just as plausibly be explained by the internal development of the autochthonous Danubian societies (the change from an economy based primarily on cultivation to laying more emphasis on stockbreeding as a result of the disequilibrium of the former in the Central European environment and the consequent change in the relative positions of women and men).

It must be admitted that this and other early essays in Marxist prehistory were not quite free from a certain formalism and abstractness: one sometimes felt, for example, that Krichevskii was talking about an abstract generalised and therefore imaginary society and not the real societies whose variety and individuality are concretely reflected in the archaeological record. To refute the allegation that Soviet archaeology is scholastic and a priori, it is important to insist that precisely this tendency has been officially repudiated by IIMK’s spokesmen. A reviewer in the last number here received of Kratkie Soobshchenniya (organ of IIMK) wrote: –

The culture-historical process in different parts of the globe exhibits not only a common regularity, but also an unlimited variety of forms in which this community manifests itself as the result of active relations between ancient ethnic groups, races, languages and cultures. The historian’s task, even in the domain of primitive society, is not only to establish the common unity of the historical process, but also to explain the really distinctively individual within it.

In conclusion, it has to be confessed that the significance of Soviet archaeology is very imperfectly appreciated in Britain. That is not due to any prejudice, at least in the minds of the younger British prehistorians. But Russian is really a difficult language and few archaeological articles have been translated in extenso. Russian books and periodicals are, and always have been, received by few libraries and institutions. Finally, Soviet archaeologists have been so engrossed in the immediately urgent business of rescuing and cataloguing what has been turned up by vast construction works, of rearranging museums and of training assistants and successors that they have really had very little time left for writing up results.