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.
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.
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.
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.