R. Lee Lyman’s childhood backyard was nestled between a tall plateau and rolling hills of wheat. Growing up in the southeast corner of Washington state, he knew that, if anything, he wanted to spend his life being outside. So when his uncle asked him and his brothers to help him look for buried arrowheads, his parents ushered the boys out to explore. “When you’ve got three boys who are 6, 8, and 10, you want to keep them busy. And that was one way to keep us busy — go dig holes looking for arrowheads.” When Lyman went to Washington State University, memories of those outings were fresh in his mind. By his sophomore year, he was majoring in anthropology. Working one of his first paying jobs as an archaeologist and having just completed a course about how to identify animal bones, Lyman found himself captivated by his ability to explain the bones in archaeological sites.
Michael J. O’Brien, Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Museum of Anthropology, and Dean of the College of Arts and Science, studies culture through the lens of evolutionary theory. His research interests range from the tangible Indian arrowhead to more abstract theories of social influence on consumer choices. The common denominator is that evolutionary theory can be applied not only to the biological sciences but the social as well. He explains, “If humans evolved—descended from other humans—the information that they carry has evolved as well. We’re interested in those paths of transmission of cultural information.” Dean O’Brien’s study of human interconnectedness also fosters it; he maintains that collaborative scholarship, or “wired brains,” produces scholarship more rigorous and expansive than does individual work.
Dr. Michael Glascock defines archaeometry as the combination of several scientific practices—“chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, statistics, etc.”—used to analyze manmade and natural artifacts. Dr. Glascock is a research professor with the Archeometry Lab at the MU Research Reactor, where he tracks trade routes and preferred materials of ancient peoples. He has lectured around the world and promotes the philosophy he applies to his work here: archaeometry is, by definition, a cooperative field, and Glascock believes in the collaborative process. He says, “It’s really the team of archaeologists plus physicists and chemists getting together—they can produce a really good product.” His hope is that this successful approach can lend itself to other labs.
Anne Rudloff Stanton loves romance. She loves the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it smells—but only when it’s found in the margins of 14th-century books. The professor of Art History and Archaeology describes one example—a small drawing of a man leaving a woman—and she leans forward as if she were talking about a mutual friend of ours. “There’s this long sequence of the story of Moses, who, as you may not know, was married before he married Zipporah,” she begins. “He first married the daughter of the king of Ethiopia.”
As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.
Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions.
Dr. Lyman describes what animal remains can teach us about the paleoecology of an area, and how he became interested in studying mountain goats in Olympic National Park.
Dr. Lyman gives us an overview of how he finds his research projects.
As a child, Dr. Lyman loved digging for arrowheads. Memories of that pastime fed into his research interests as an adult.
Dr. Lyman demonstrates how using a greater time depth — 10,000 years instead of 30, for example — can better inform scientists dealing with conservation issues.
Dr. Lyman quotes Arts and Science Dean Michael O’Brien and talks about his zeal for his research spills over into his teaching.
Dean O’Brien describes his early interest in archeology as a child in Texas collecting arrowheads.
Projectile points offer evidence to support theories of technological change and migration patterns of the first inhabitants of North America.
Glascock details a fundamental function of the archaeometry performed at MU: tracking. He highlights obsidian as a key material used for this task.
Glascock defines the field of archaeometry, and then details his personal approach to the field. He also notes his attempts to reach out to the archaeometric community in order to further the science.
Art history, studying the artifacts of the past, provides context for all the history we learn, Stanton says. She believes that art history is the core discipline of the humanities because it touches on all of the other aspects of life: language, culture, science, and math.
Stanton teaches a variety of courses in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, among them period surveys of art that begin with the ancient world. One of her most interesting courses is called “The Art of the Book,” in which students learn to view the book as an artifact unto itself and culminates with their learning to make their own books at the end of the semester.
VanPool talks about her archeological field research in Chihuahua, Mexico. Not only does she have the opportunity to study the culture, but she also gets to study the language.
“Most people don’t realize how complex ancient North America was,” notes Barker, and for a long time its history was based more on imagination than investigation: “One of the most important myths energizing the nineteenth century imagination was that of the moundbuilder. This was the idea that the ancient mounds of the southeastern and eastern United States had to have been built by an advanced race that was far too complex and far too ‘civilized’ to have been the ancestors of modern Native Americans. It is probably not a coincidence that this myth took off just about the time Indian lands began being taken away, reached a zenith during the period when lands were being taking away most rapidly; and when all the land had been taken away, the myth vanished.” Barker studies the myth to better understand how the past is constructed and construed in the present.
Barker takes us into the Museum of Art and Archaeology, heading immediately to a Mayan vessel that dates from sometime between about 600 to 900 CE. He is confident about the vessel’s authenticity because of the glyphic inscription across its lip describing the fruity cacao that the vessel’s owner would be drinking. The Mayan glyphic code was not broken until after the vessel was accepted and accessioned into the museum’s collection, he explains, and only because of subsequent scholarship are they able to read the inscription. That the vessel was created for cacao—chocolate—is also interesting, for cacao was one of the most important economic resources, along with salt, circulating as valuables in complex societies in Mesoamerica, even though cacao is not native to the region but to areas further south.
Barker talks about his work studying the European Bronze Age, which refers to a period of cultural history that succeeded the Stone Age and was characterized by the use of tools made of bronze and by metal smelting. The dates for the Bronze Age vary according to location, he explains, and the site he’s currently investigating is deeply stratified, meaning it has many levels of successive cultural occupation.
“I could never decide what I wanted to do,” recounts Barker. “I was interested in everything. People have described archaeology as being a discipline that takes from all the other disciplines. He began his career in archaeology at a very young age—during middle school, in fact—doing field camps through a Northwestern University program in southern Illinois, where he helped to excavate a series of very large sites. After doing a few seasons there, Barker was hooked.
As a museum director and archaeologist, one of Barker’s most pressing research agendas concerns ethics and the question of who owns the past. Although many objects in the museum’s collection predate modern acquisition guidelines, this remains a real concern for museum staff. Finding himself torn between competing and often contradictory claims to the past’s remnants, Barker struggles with how to ethically handle the acquisition of antiquities in a way that seeks to protect the archaeological record and the sovereignty of the countries from which the objects originate, but also to benefit the public today.
“Collaboration is necessary for someone like me because I don’t have a field,” says Barker. “Am I an anthropological archaeologist or am I a museum director? I’m both. We often talk about interdisciplinary research; by necessity, mine is completely interdisciplinary. It is always sitting between and spanning multiple disciplines.” He collaborates, for example, with other museums and research centers, for example with Michael D. Glascock of the Missouri Reactor Center’s Archaeometry Laboratory.
Barker has also being doing fieldwork in the New World, especially in ancient Missouri and the Ancient Southeast and in more recent historical periods, from 1000 to 1500 CE across the American midcontinent. Art styles of all of those regions used the same basic symbols, apparently referring to the same basic concepts.
Almost all of Barker’s field research in Romania focuses on a single broad question: how does society go from the sovereign individual to the individual sovereign?
Barker is trying to understand the relationship between that process and the economics underlying those societies, seeking answers to questions about the economic basis of political change, and the development of economic mechanisms like taxation and charity relief, as well as why people would be willing to forsake their rights as autonomous individuals for more autocratic control by some kind of hierarchy. Barker surmises that individuals must have somehow perceived themselves as benefiting from the change.
Alex Barker wears several different hats. As an anthropological archaeologist, Barker’s research and fieldwork resolves around the Bronze Age of Europe and the late prehistoric period of the American southeast, digging for and studying evidence for social change. Barker also serves as the director of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.