The Dollarware Project

Editor's Message

The Dollarware Project was conceived in 2007 when I was asked to teach the core Archaeological Methods course at McGill University. Traditionally this course has been taught using existing faunal collections in the laboratory facilities, supplemented with printed exercises. I am not a zooarchaeologist, and so the faunal collections would have been of limited use to me, and yet the alternative, to exclude hands-on work from the course, was unacceptable to me. Something better had to be found.

Dollarware has several advantages as a form of material culture that make it ideal for student research:
  1. It is a form of material culture familiar to most students already - it requires no special training or knowledge to work with it.
  2. Ceramic analysis is a central aspect of archaeological lab work, making dollarware a useful stepping-stone for future research with more traditionally 'archaeological' collections.
  3. The low cost (maximum $1.00 per artifact) makes it feasible to rapidly and inexpensively collect a very large quantity of material suitable for statistical analysis.
  4. Dollarware has both morphological properties (linear dimensions, volume, mass, etc.) and iconographic ones (design, imagery, writing), providing a wide range of subjects for student investigation, depending on research interest.
Having procured a small budget to purchase dollarware and other equipment (for which many thanks are due to Prof. Michael Bisson and to Rose Marie Stano), I organized the students semi-randomly into groups of three, and sent them to various dollar stores throughout the city of Montreal, shopping for dollarware. The artifacts, once retrieved, photographed, and catalogued, were all measured in terms of five linear measurements, weight, contents volume and displacement volume, with all students contributing to this phase of the project regardless of the relevance of this work to their eventual research design. Not only does this reflect the reality of archaeological research in which collaborative analysis is the rule, but it also acts to limit the bias that might result from students selecting and measuring artifacts with a predisposition or theoretical framework in mind. Finally, it provides useful training in the use of calipers, graduated cylinders, electronic scales, and other basic instrumentation to students in a liberal arts program who otherwise might not receive it.

In conjunction with lectures and discussions on research design, typology, and statistical analysis, I encouraged students to brainstorm questions about dollarware - no matter how ridiculous they might initially sound - and then to design a question that could feasibly be answered given the limitations of the project. Of course, inevitably we discovered that as we collected material, some questions had to be revised or discarded, while new and intriguing ones were raised. As the project progresses, students are finding ways to cooperate on various aspects of their work: independently coding artifact attributes and types, sharing data sets, and in some cases producing group reports.

Ultimately our aspiration is not only to learn techniques and apply them to some artifacts, but to say something important about contemporary industrial societies (or at least contemporary Montreal) through the analysis of material culture. Questions of nationalism, globalization, gender and aesthetics are raised through the analysis of the iconography and design of modern material culture. Questions relating to shape, weight, and physical properties help us to get a sense of processes of manufacture, issues of value, and functional attributes of the artifacts. To my knowledge no previous study of dollarware has been conducted, anywhere.

My belief is that advanced undergraduate students are exactly the right target audience for initiating and undertaking limited-scale research projects of their own design, from start to finish. The level of effort and enthusiasm so far has simply been astonishing. I fully expect that the research coming out of the Dollarware Project will find its way into peer-reviewed student-authored or co-authored publication in the near future. I hope, moreover, that this work can encourage parallel student projects elsewhere. Finally, by presenting our data and analysis here under a Creative Commons license, I hope to present useful and interesting information, freely available, that inspires interest and more careful consideration of the seemingly humdrum but endlessly fascinating archaeological record of contemporary North America.

Stephen Chrisomalis
February 2008

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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