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Who was Dave the Potter?
Documentary explores the life and work of artisan slave
Filmmaker Mark Albertin directs actor Darion McCloud, who portrays the enslaved potter in the documentary <b><i>Discovering Dave</i></b>. Photo by George Wingard

Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay Screening and Q&A with archaeologist George Wingard

When: 6pm, Thursday, Jan. 22

Where: Armstrong State University, Student Union Ballroom

Cost: Free


IN 2006 NEAR Aiken, South Carolina, archaeologist George Wingard struck gold—or rather, ceramic.

During an exploration about the viability of a groundwater monitoring well for the Dept. of Energy, Wingard and his team made an amazing find: A piece of pottery engraved in a curlicue script with the name “Dave” and the date “1862.”

Wingard knew immediately he had a treasure on his hands. After the rest of the glazed shards were excavated, it was confirmed: The broken, earthenware pot was made by the enigmatic Dave the Potter, an enslaved artisan who produced hundreds of meticulously crafted vessels in the Edgefield District of South Carolina from the 1820s to the 1860s.

Highly valued by collectors—intact jugs and urns can go for as much as $45,000 a piece at auction—and much sought after by museum curators, “Dave pots” have been recognized as important historical artifacts since the 1920s.

Ceramic stoneware made by the enigmatic 'Dave the Potter' is highly sought after by collectors and curators.
Ceramic stoneware made by the enigmatic 'Dave the Potter' is highly sought after by collectors and curators.

The Smithsonian houses several, as does the National Museum of American History. Several examples of the artist-slave’s were featured locally in the Telfair Museums’ 2011 exhibition Beyond Utility: Pottery Created by Enslaved Hands and are part of the permanent collection at the Owens-Thomas House.

Yet little is known about the man himself. Apart from census records and a bit of lore, only the barest information has survived through the centuries—not unusual for a slave. His name is well-known in collectors’ circles for his prolific talents, but Dave—who also knew how to read and write, inscribing many of his pots with biblical references and cryptic sonnets—has remained an obscure figure.

“Either people are just interested in the pot, or they’ve never heard of Dave at all,” says Wingard.

“But Dave is much more than a pot you can buy at an auction. We decided we needed to tell his story.”

In 2011, Wingard partnered with filmmaker Mark Albertin of Scrapbook Productions on a historical documentary. Completed in 2013, Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay has garnered multiple awards, including “Audience Favorite” at the Arkhaios Archaeology Film Festival. A screening of the film will be presented by Digging Savannah at Armstrong State University on Thursday, Jan. 22.

Discovering Dave is the first full-length documentary about the potter, and Wingard and Albertin interviewed 17 historians, archaeologists, pottery experts and authors, including Leonard Todd, who wrote the definitive biography The Life and Legend of Dave the Potter.

“When you cull it down, there are only five facts about his life that we really know,” explains Wingard.

“We take those facts and put it in context of what was going in Edgefield at the time: The history, the Red Shirt Rebellion, the coming of the Civil War.”

It was illegal for slaves to read and write during Dave’s life, and though no one knows for sure who taught him, it appears likely that one of his owners exposed him to the Bible. Several poetic snippets also suggest that he fell in love in 1840, and the absence of any writings found between 1846 and 1857 hints of an ominous repression of his literary skills.

In 1862—the year marked on the pot found by Wingard—the Civil War would have been in full swing. Documents show that Dave was emancipated in 1864 and took the last name “Drake,” after a former owner. He remained in Edgefield and is believed to have died sometime in the 1870s, as his name is not shown on the 1880 census.

For Wingard, discovering Dave’s pot has been the apex of a long career. He has spent 22 years as a lead archeologist for the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, a division of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, which in turn is a department of the University of South Carolina.

The SRARP is located on the Savannah River Site, the 300-mile tract of land owned by the U.S. Dept. of Energy that once produced nuclear weapons materials and continues to house ongoing nuclear research and Superfund cleanup efforts.

“We’re directly contracted by the DOE to ensure the protection of the nearly 12,000 years worth of history here,” says Wingard.

Over the decades he’s found spearheads and stone tools fashioned by Native Americans as well as modern artifacts left behind by residents who had to be relocated after the site’s construction in the 1950s.

He normally samples an area using small cuts in the soil, and it was a combination of science and luck that led him to the historic stoneware.

“Had we been one foot in either direction, we would have missed it,” he says, adding that the pot was already in pieces when it was excavated.

“It was almost as if the whole pot had been broken and almost reverently buried in this hole.”

More about the retrieval process is detailed in the film, which Digging Savannah co-director Laura Seifert extols for bringing together the historical, technical and artistic elements of Dave’s story. Digging Savannah is based at Armstrong and recently produced a smart phone app that maps all of the local archeological sites open for exploration.

“Our mission is to educate our students and the public about archaeology and develop opportunities for Savannah students and citizens to participate in the history beneath their feet,” says Seifert, who

Discovering Dave is an excellent example of public archaeology, bringing archaeologists’ research and local history to everyone.”

The public will also have a chance to see Dave’s pot in person: Ceramic experts have glued the pot back together, and Wingard will bring it to show Thursday’s audience as well as answer questions about the film and Dave’s life.

“We want people will be inspired by Dave,” says Wingard.

“I hope people walk away with a better understanding of his life and his work.”

Archaeologist Geoffrey Hughes helps excavate the base of the broken Dave vessel, found at the Dept. of Energy's Savannah River Site. Photo by George Wingard