Too much heat has melted and exploded two stacker jugs – now fused together.
The process of making pottery, from watery mud to something that endures for centuries, belies the fire and fury that is invested in the final piece. This is especially so for fine china, but even when it comes to the utilitarian stonewares of South Carolina’s Old Edgefield District, it is hard to imagine the violent process that produces the jugs, bowls, pitchers and other forms that are now so avidly collected across America.
As archaeologists, we delve into waster piles – the mountains of broken and damaged vessels that the buying public never sees. Once in a while we come across so something so spectacular that even we are in awe of the fury and energy that is the firing process. Photographed above is such a piece. It is a fragment of what looks like an Albany slip glazed half-gallon stacker jug. Welded to it is a fragment of a one or two gallon jug. We can see that this firing got way out of control. Temperatures and the green ware began to fuse, as it should, but then went on to actually melt. The result was a collapse of wares inside the kiln, perhaps even an explosion. After the kiln had cooled the potters removed all the damaged wares and tossed them on the waster heap.
The finished product – but even this handsome three gallon ovoid was thrown away!
The field portion of our work on 38ED221, where Joseph Baynham last worked, is long over. It generated a vast amount of material. Work began on the site in 1996 after an earlier archaeologist had written the area off as a product of Northern Ohio Valley potters. This despite general local knowledge that it dated to the 1860s. Thus informed, the owners had bulldozed some of the most important parts of the pottery. When we returned to re-assess the site, a written agreement was made with the owners that we would receive 50% of every intact vessel found, along with 100% of all the diagnostics we could recover. These would form part of the research collection for display and publication. Diagnostics are spouts, neck, handles, rims, anything part of the broken vessels that would tell us what form it originally had. Pot hunters had been picking over abandoned Edgefield potteries for half a century, so we did not, in fact, expect to find any intact pots. These are damaged vessels that pot hunters can repair with bondo and sell to unsuspecting collectors. The owners, Dr. Michael and Kim Fulford, asked that we try to find at least two intact pots, one for each of their two children.
To this day we are puzzled by exactly how much work the earlier archaeologist did. Our first preliminary survey and testing work uncovered a rain washed gully that Baynham filled with over 1,000 intact and broken pots!
Documenting the gully finds (left) Field archaeologist Nick Nichols excavates a profile. (Upper right) Aerial view of one of the excavation units. Aerials were shot of the entire gully. (Lower right) author draws a profile.
They ranged in size from magnificent five gallon alkaline glazed ovoids to small half gallon Albany slip glazed stacker jugs.
A selection of vessels recovered from the ‘gully’.
We spent an entire summer carefully excavating the deposit and cleaning, photographing and cataloging the entire assembly. The find amounted to possibly the single most important discovery in the history of Edgefield pottery, perhaps even in the history of American ceramics.
Property owner Mrs. Kim Fulford was a constant presence during the dig and helped document and catalog the finds.
We knew then that taking half of the collection was not an ethical option. A collection of such size and importance had to stay together. Dr. Fulford agreed, undertaking to store and eventually display or donate the vessels and promising never to sell any to the collector market. Instead of breaking up the collection, we opted to take a representative sample of each vessel type from the five gallon ovoid to the small stacker jug (we never received a five gallon ovoid). Also, we sampled bowls, cream risers and chamber pots. Some of these were published in later articles including Ceramics in America.
Armed with our new knowledge of exactly what was being made at the site from the early 1860s to 1906, we also started buying vessels in junk and antique stores from Virginia to Florida. Joseph Baynham, and especially his son Mark, were exceptionally effective in marketing their pots in an age when only rail and horse and cart were available for transportation.
The artifacts recovered from the Trenton site ranged from pottery to Henry cartridges, small copper tags and a large number of South Carolina Dispensary and wine bottles. Evidently alcohol consumption was a necessary part of pot production! There were also many patent medicine bottles, including “female regulators’, indicating that women were part of the workforce.
While this assemblage is the stuff of eventual technical publications, it also gave us a ‘feel’ for the lives of the pottery workers. One of them was an African, Ward Lee, whose original name was Cilucangy. Lee was brought to Georgia in 1858 aboard the slave ship Wanderer, the last to bring enslaved Africans into the southeastern states. As part of our Edgefield research we spoke on numerous occasions to his descendants. They still own property in the Trenton area and, like many Wanderer descendants in the US, they retain and celebrate the details of their ancestry.
Much of this information was sent to novelist Jack Rees, a friend living in California. It is, of course, impossible to know exactly what life was like for workers in the Edgefield pottery industry, but, using the information we provided, we asked Rees to write a creative piece we could include in our upcoming media work on the potteries. This is what he sent us:
Jack Rees 1998.
The sun had not long sunk below the pines, the crimson sky was fading to violet blue and the final burn began. The younger men worked furiously as the kiln master ordered them to load the firebox with smaller splits of pine. Even in the cold November air they were sweating, it had been a hard three days and nights and now the kiln was nearing its final searing crescendo of heat.
The old man lowered himself carefully in the battered chair set off to one side of the kiln. He watched and listened as the wood in the firebox exploded. Sheets of flame, first dull crimson, then bright red and finally yellow began to roar from the short chimney stack at the end of the groundhog kiln.
He remembered the very first time he had seen potters burning kiln. It was a few short years after he had walked down Plank Road from Hamburg to Trenton in the midst of South Carolina’s piedmont pottery industry. His name was Cilucangy in those days. He was one a several hundred fellow Africans who had survived the barracoons of the Congo delta, the horrors of the forced passage across the ocean and the secretive arrival off Jekyll Island, Ga. Two months before he had been a carefree child working a field with his mother. He first became a captive and then, once delivered to Georgia in 1858, he became a slave.
The memory faded momentarily as light shone brighter through the cracks of the brickwork of the arched roof of the kiln. The bands of wire cable stretched over the roof and turn buckled tight were now beginning to strain as the entire kiln began to expand like some fearsome creature straining against its bonds. The men worked to feed the fire as it consumed the pine and fat lighter. The pottery was in darkness now but the fierce light of the firebox bounced off the sweating faces of the men, both white and black as they fought to keep the fire alive and hot. As a young boy, Cilucangy was convinced this was a scene from the white man’s Hell.
Cilucangy. Now his name was Ward Lee, a white name to be sure, but one of his own making. The kilnmaster looked across the kiln at him. Ward scanned the flames from the chimney and the color of the light from the kiln cracks. He shook his head from side to side. More heat. The kiln master signaled to the men at the firebox. They knew to start plying the fire with smaller, faster burning wood.
As a boy he watched this process with a wide-eyed mixture of fear and fascination. He had seen the ngangas of the village in the Congo make iron with their magic and tiny smelting kilns, but this…it was an entirely different kind of magic. As the temperature increased the air began to roar from the firebox to the chimney. It passed over the mouths of the stoneware jugs inside the kiln and they began to hum. The faster and hotter the air, the higher the pitch. The kiln was buckling, straining and now moaning like a thing alive.
“Sing to me,” thought Ward Lee, “tell me when you are ready to be saved from the fire!”
The old man heard the singing of the women folk long before they rounded the corner of the dirt road leading through the pines to the kiln. They were coming to the men to celebrate the end of the four day burn with barbecued chicken and pork, collards, beans and some pine needle tea. Later there would be more singing by lantern light and perhaps a little moonshine as well.
The children gathered around the old man. They had run well ahead of the womenfolk as soon as they had seen the light of the kiln fire. Ward smiled and patted heads here and there and soon the children sat on the ground to watch the last minutes of the firing.
The kiln master looked once more at Ward. The old man groaned and hauled himself out of the chair. He looked into the firebox, then he walked along the low side of the groundhog kiln. One of the younger men bent to pull a small brick out of the wall. A bright yellow shaft of light spotlighted Ward’s coal black skin and white beard. He squinted and peered into the kiln. There, in the midst of the searing light, he could see massive ten gallon storage jars and stacks of quart whiskey jars and clabber bowls, their surfaces glistening as if wet. Ward nodded and the brick was replaced. He stepped down to the end of the kiln and another brick was removed. He groaned as he bent his knees and peered inside. Yes, now the back of the kiln was as hot as the front and the pots glistened alike. They were ready.
Ward held up five fingers. The kiln master nodded to the men at the firebox. They were watching and fed the fire for five minutes more. Then each man grabbed a firebrick in each hand from a stack by the firebox door and began to brick up the entrance. In a minute or two the kiln fell silent, the roaring of the fire ceased, the hum of the pottery necks died to a whisper and the light faded from the chimney stack above them.
The women lit kerosene lanterns and began to serve the food and tea. The men collapsed on the ground, most of them too tired to eat.
Ward eased back into his chair as his granddaughter Ocea sat at his feet, “Tell us about slavery time Granpa Lee. Tell us about the Wanderer!”
“Hush chile, you know better, we doan talk about them days…” Ocea’s mother snapped her long apron in disapproval. Ocea, chastened dropped her face to the ground. Then Ocea looked up and smiled, “Granpa Lee, tell us about Africa! Tell us about home!”
Ward Lee smiled broadly, planted his cane between his knees and leaned forward with his hands crossed over the finely carved handle.
“Children, did I ever tell you the story about how the soles of our feet and the palms of our hands got to be lighter than the rest of our bodies?”
The children clapped their hands and laughed, a new story!
“Well,” said Lee, “There is an old legend about Okolun who heard the prayers of the villagers in the very first village ever there was in the Congo land… ”
Our research into Ward Lee led into many interviews and archival searches into the origins of the enslaved Africans aboard the Wanderer. We learned that some 200 of them came to the Edgefield potteries. We accumulated hundreds of newspaper accounts, letters and other documents. We also invited many descendants to meet with us at the Schomberg Institute in Harlem, New York City, where we video-taped their personal stories. In some cases invitees had no idea who their descendants were. We were able to track them down by name and then, at the Schomberg, tell them their history, even down to the villages in the Congo where their ancestor came from. It was a very emotional afternoon.
As we started creating Internet media through which we could publish our findings, we sought ways in which we could bring these ancestors ‘alive’. A New York recording studio was used to make recordings of some of the letters we had found, all made by recent African immigrants, the accents of the voices were electrifying! Listen on our upcoming YouTube Channel “Archaeonaut” as an actor reads a letter Ward Lee sent to a local Edgefield newspaper. He desperately wanted to return home…