Bringing an enslaved potter's story to the Met

Anthropologist's research on the Antebellum South is put on display
George Calfas
George Calfas unearthed a jug in 2011 that is now part of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo by Fred Zwicky.)

NEW YORK CITY – As we climb the mountain of stairs that leads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and step inside, I’m struck by the scale and grandeur of what lies before me and the complexity, beauty, and discourse it offers. My family and I are entering one of the pinnacles of American artistic and historic curation. All around us, we see archaeologically recovered materials from ancient Egypt, Bronze Age Greece, and many other chapters in human history.

I want to take in the entire museum, but I am most excited to see the stoneware jug that I first encountered while excavating in 2011. This jug is part of the museum’s “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” exhibition. My association with the jug began in 2011 when I led a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign field school in Edgefield, where a historic stoneware production site known as Pottersville is located. Though we didn’t know it at the time, eight amazing U of I students, valued colleagues from South Carolina and I had embarked on an archaeological dig that would shift the narrative of slavery and pottery production at Pottersville and in Edgefield County.

At left: Stoneware jug excavated from Pottersville in 2011 during a U of I field school and reconstructed by George Calfas. At right: A 40-gallon storage vessel created by Dave Drake. (Photos by Eileen Travell, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and George Calfas, respectively.)

I was a doctoral student in anthropology at the time, and Pottersville, slavery, and the material culture of the Antebellum South were the focus of my dissertation. The field school would allow me to gather the data I needed. Only limited archaeological work had been conducted at the site, which had once been the epicenter of American alkaline-glazed stoneware production. Pottersville also was home to Dave Drake, an enslaved African who, like many other enslaved people, was forced to work the plantations in Edgefield County. Dave, who was widely known for his first name alone, was a gifted potter who produced alkaline-glazed stoneware jugs for more than 50 years at several kiln locations, starting when he was in his 20s. Dave, who was born in 1800, was literate and sometimes inscribed phrases, poems and his signature into his pots, which was illegal in South Carolina at the time.

Pottersville (Landrumsville) on an 1825 map. (Robert Mills map, 1825.)

Our goal in 2011 was to unearth a 20-foot-long groundhog kiln, a type of kiln that was typical of many local potteries of that era. To our surprise, we found a 105-foot-long kiln capable of firing thousands of vessels per month. We also uncovered more than 30,000 artifacts, ranging from small fragments to large, identifiable vessel forms. Back home in Illinois after the dig, the students and I were able to reconstruct about 30 stoneware vessels, one of which is now on display at the Met.

With the new data and evidence in hand, the narrative of my dissertation shifted from small, plantation-scale production to industrial-scale slavery. I shared my findings at conference presentations and through writings, inspiring other scholars to refocus on Dave and enslaved pottery production.

(Editor's note: Read a College of LAS story from 2011 about the field expedition in Edgefield.)

Archaeological dig
U of I field school students at the Pottersville kiln site in 2011. (Photo by Bridget Lee-Calfas.)

In 2019, Metropolitan Museum exhibition curator Adrienne Spinozzi asked me to share insights and artifacts from the 2011 dig as a participant in the exhibition. From the artifact options I shared with her, she selected a large stoneware jar from the Pottersville excavation. This jug consists of more than a dozen pottery sherds that were pieced together to generate a nearly complete vessel. I also provided contextual information and narration for audio tracks that Spinozzi’s team incorporated into the self-guided tour and virtual exhibition and accompanying museum publication.

As we navigate through the massive halls of the Met and emerge into the “Hear Me Now” exhibition, an enormous 40-gallon stoneware storage vessel – crafted and signed by Dave – sits before us. Just beyond that, another 50 stoneware vessels from Pottersville and other Edgefield District stoneware manufacturing kilns of the era are on display, including the jug I remember first uncovering so long ago.

I feel tremendous gratitude to be able to contribute to this exhibition and to the complex narrative around industrialized slavery, and to celebrate the lives and work of the Black potters of Edgefield.

Editor's note: “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through Feb. 5. To hear Calfas describe the history and background of the jug he helped unearth and reconstruct, scroll down on the “Hear Me Now” page and click on “567. Jug, ca. 1840s (reconstructed 2012).”

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George Calfas, anthropology research associate