The study of material culture is about tracing the life of objects in human
culture. The term “material culture” refers to the things around you that
have physical form and presence. Material culture is the physical manifesta-
tion of human effort and is the result of human imagination, the making of
things, the movement of things, and the ideas embodied in the world that
humans physically construct. Material culture studies is not so much a field
of study, like history, as it is a method to better understand human culture,
past and present. Kenneth Ames argued that the study of material culture
was centrifugal—the object being studied is at the center of the spiral, and
moving outward from the object are small (such as what kind of material the
object is made of) to larger concerns about human meaning and existence
(such as the ways that the shape of the object can echo a belief in a single
Do you remember the famous cowbell in the Saturday Night Live skit
with Christopher Walken? (You can view the skit “More Cowbell” from
April 8, 2000, at nbc.com.) If we think seriously about the cowbell as a
thing with meaning, we move quickly from the specifics about a cowbell
(its composition, its shape, and its use) to the meanings and significance that
lay behind the cowbell skit from Saturday Night Live. The cowbell is an
object or artifact. As an artifact, it is the outcome of processes, and as an
artifact, it has meaning. As an object, as a result of human processes and as
an object assigned meaning, the mundane cowbell is best understood as an
artifact of daily life.
The skit “More Cowbell” was recorded in the last year of the 20th cen-
tury on Saturday Night Live (National Broadcasting Corporation, 1975–).
Written by Will Ferrell (1967–), it shows a fictionalized 1970s band, Blue
Öyster Cult (1972–), as its members record a version of “(Don’t Fear) The
Reaper” with “famed” Bruce Dickinson (played by Christopher Walken
[1943–]). Dickinson, a successful music producer, wants “more cowbell” in
the song, and Gene Frenkle (played by Will Ferrell) delivers, swinging his
rotund belly wildly as he whacks the cowbell.
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