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 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.
One of the paintings Barker was pleasantly surprised to find in the museum’s collection is a self-portrait by the Romanian surrealist Victor Brauner. Dating from 1923, the painting reflects the period immediately before the artist moved fully into surrealism as a means of representation. “It is a remarkable portrait,” explains Barker, “because it is the last time he paints himself with both eyes.” In his subsequent work, that is, the artist always paints himself with one eye missing—whether there is a gaping wound, an automaton of some kind, or his eyes placed on his hands. In 1938, Brauner was in a bar fight, during which his eye was poked out—the very eye he had been painting himself without for a decade and a half. Barker says, “Surrealism holds it up as an example of sort of a premonitory knowledge that this was going to happen, proof that time is not linear to the unconscious mind.”