It’s easy for Mark Newell to imagine what the isolated crossroads in South Carolina’s Edgefield County must have looked like 200 years ago.
“See the mound over in that field? That’s the kiln,” he said. “And just a half-mile further was the clay mine.”
Pottersville,the community that once thrived there, was established in 1810 by Dr. Abner Landrum, whose slave artisans turned out hundreds of thousands of stoneware vessels.
“It was his manufactory that started what we call the Edgefield pottery tradition,” said Newell, an archaeologist who has studied South Carolina’s famous potteries for three decades.
In its heyday, Pottersville was the origin of food storage jars of all sizes, along with other vessels that played a role in food preservation during the early days of the U.S.
“The average passer-by would never even know what was here,” Newell said, gazing at overgrown fields and occasional homes along U.S. Highway 25. “There is still a lot to be learned here, mostly underground.”
A nearby pond, for example, holds valuable knowledge beneath the dark water. “At the bottom, there are the remains of a brick flume, from the pottery,” he said.
Edgefield pottery is widely appreciated for its beauty and durability and is collected as utilitarian art.
In 2011, University of Illinois research archaeologist George Calfas and his student colleagues conducted a dig at the kiln site that yielded about 30,000 artifacts – mostly shards of pottery – and valuable knowledge about the processes used to make the vessels.
The Pottersville area holds just a few of the sites of antebellum stoneware factories.
In all, nearly two-dozen potteries thrived in the region, turning out storage jars and thousands of other vessels, including the famous “face jugs” that have been traced to some of the last African slaves brought to North America.
One of the area’s best-known slave potters was a man named Dave, whose strength and talent enabled him to create some of the largest Edgefield jars ever found.
It wasn’t just vessels of clay that made Dave special, however. He was also a poet who somehow taught himself to read and write – and inscribed insightful verses on some of his jars.
His later vessels, often signed and dated, can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia Museum, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in North Carolina, Atlanta’s High Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Detroit’s African-American Museum.
Pottersville’s decline began around 1830. Today, the area is considered a part of the town of Edgefield, just a few