Unearthing the past: Edgefield pottery excavations reveal new, surprising information

  • Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2013 12:01 a.m.
Staff photo by Dede Biles
Patrick Lowe, foreground, of Aiken collects material from an excavation unit on the site in Aiken County where John Landrum lived. In the background, Pat Colbert sifts through dirt from the unit.
Staff photo by Dede Biles Patrick Lowe, foreground, of Aiken collects material from an excavation unit on the site in Aiken County where John Landrum lived. In the background, Pat Colbert sifts through dirt from the unit.

Archaeological excavations are uncovering new and surprising information about the potteries that thrived in Aiken and Edgefield counties in the first half of the 1800s.

“There is a sparse documentary record of this area that is maddening, and what we've found has been a complete revelation,” said Dr. Christopher Fennell, an associate professor and the associate head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Fennell and a team of graduate and undergraduate students, along with some volunteers, have been working at Pottersville, a site not far from downtown Edgefield, since just after Memorial Day. They are scheduled to wrap up this year's efforts on Friday. Their focus in 2013 has been to add to the knowledge gained during a series of digs at the same location in 2011.

Before then, much of what was known about local potteries in the past suggested that a groundhog kiln about 25 to 30 feet in length and 9 to 10 feet wide would be found at Pottersville. Instead, the researchers discovered a kiln that was more than 105 feet long and had a sloping floor similar to the dragon kilns used in China.

“It gave us quite a new view of Edgefield,” Fennell said. “There had been a working historical theory before then that this had started out as smaller scale crafts industry. But what was found was a much bigger industrial-scale pottery.”

Abner Landrum, a physician, founded Pottersville, which originally was known as Landrumsville, in the early 1800s. Even though he practiced medicine, Landrum was very interested in ceramics. In 1812, Fennell said, Landrum applied to the South Carolina government for a grant to open a pottery and it was up and running by 1815. In 1820, there were four potters' wheels turning at Landrum's operation, according to an industrial census.

Pottersville workers, many of which were slaves, primarily produced alkaline-glazed stoneware storage vessels that were used on plantations. Their jugs and other items were the first representatives of the work that would come to be known as Edgefield pottery, which is highly prized by collectors today. Some pieces created by the celebrated slave potter known as Dave have sold for more than $100,000 apiece.

Pottersville was in South Carolina's historic Edgefield District, which covered much of modern Aiken, Edgefield, Greenwood, McCormick and Saluda counties.

“This is the birthplace of Edgefield pottery,” said Fennell of the Pottersville site. “Abner Landrum built the first dragon-style kiln in the Americas and he was first to use the alkaline glaze in the Americas. If that doesn't float your boat, I don't know what will.”

In the most recent excavation efforts, Fennell and his team have uncovered what appear to be the remains of a pug mill, where clay taken from the ground was processed before being used, and a large shed where the stoneware was made or was dried.

“Within a quarter-mile radius of here are ponds that we think were created by water filling in where there had actually been surface extractions of clay,” Fennell said.

Fennell hopes to return in the future and do more excavations on the different structures that ground-penetrating radar indicated once surrounded the kiln. He also would like to locate the buildings where the workers lived. The houses probably were located along a nearby creek, Fennell said.

In another excavation project this year associated with the University of Illinois efforts, a team led by Carl Steen of the Diachronic Research Foundation in Columbia focused on a site in Aiken County near Eureka where John Landrum had a farm, grist mill and tannery as well as a pottery. He was a brother of Abner Landrum and he had a dragon-style kiln constructed on his property about 10 years after Abner built his. A groundhog-style kiln also has been found on the John Landrum site.

“John Landrum was a circuit-riding Baptist minister,” Steen said, “and he had a hand in founding a lot of the old churches around here.”

Carrying on work that took place in 2011, Steen and his team this year excavated an area where a structure believed to have been John Landrum's original house was located. They think it later served as a home for slaves. They also examined an area where the remains of the cellar of the property's main house were found.

Prior to the scheduled end of 2013's digging on June 28, Steen showed off a display case of artifacts uncovered in 2011 and this year. They included bone buttons, bone handles from tableware, fragments of a cream pitcher, a piece of pottery with Landrum's cross-shaped mark on it and a nose from a face jug.

“We also found an 1828 penny,” he said. “It's the first and only coin that we've found here.”

Steen has an interesting theory about the slave potter named Dave. Because information about Dave indicates he worked for quite a few different people over a number of years, Steen believes there might have been another potter with the same name.

“In 1840, Dave writes on a pot that he belongs to Mr. (Lewis) Miles,” Steen said. “Then, in 1847, a slave potter named Dave gets sold by the Rev. John Landrum's estate. Maybe there was a Dave Jr. It's something you've got to consider.”

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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