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.
“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.