Archaeology, Storytelling Converge in “Discovering Dave”


Photo by Bryan Rubin, Photo editor

George Wingard, program coordinator at the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program at the AJLC’s Hallock Auditorium Tuesday to screen his 2013 documentary Discovering Dave. The film tells the story of an enslaved potter named David Drake through his masterful engraved jars.

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

When enslaved master potter David Drake first rendered his signature in clay in early 19th-century South Carolina, he knew that the product bearing his mark would endure. However, he might not have guessed that nearly 200 years later, his pots would still be on the market.

Out of the estimated 60,000 to 80,000 pieces he made during his lifetime, only a small fraction have been discovered. However, those few, known among the archaeological community as “Dave Jars,” have helped scholars piece together the potter’s life. Traveling from master to master over decades, Drake spent most of his life as a slave with master Lewis Miles, a relationship that often worked its way into his art. Now, with the discovery of another pot and a unique vision for how Dave’s story could be told, archaeologist George Wingard and director Mark Albertin set out to put the potter’s legacy to film. Wingard presented the 2013 documentary, titled Discovering Dave, at a screening in the Adam Joseph Lewis Center For Environmental Studies’ Hallock Auditorium Tuesday night.

Identified by the potter’s distinct mark — the name “Dave” written in a flowing hand with the occasional short poem — Wingard sees Dave’s pottery not only as a window into a sole man’s life, but as important artifacts that illustrate a rarely discussed aspect of slavery.

“Dave represents so many of the enslaved master craftsmen,” Wingard told the Review. “Brickworkers, ironworkers, carpenters… Their names are lost.” Often, he said, historical narratives of enslaved people in America omit the importance of their crafts — a hole that Dave’s life helps to fill. But our cultural tendency toward commoditization of ‘antiques’ like these pots has made this story a difficult one to tell.

“Dave’s pots sell for lots of money,” Wingard said. “[Collectors] saw him as this jar that was worth a lot of money and they could get it and sell it.” As a result, much of Dave’s work has ended up behind glass in museums, complicating attempts to connect the dots. Fortunately, in conjunction with the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, Wingard, the program coordinator, excavated a new jar on land cleared of inhabitants in the 1950s for the purpose of atomic energy research. Once he and Albertin, collaborators on another documentary about the residents who once called the area home, saw the passion some locals had for Dave’s pottery, they decided it was time to bring his story to the rest of the country.

From San Diego to Seattle and all the way to the Dixie Film Festival in Georgia, Discovering Dave has reached viewers across the country. As a non-profit endeavor, screenings are one of the only ways for audiences to see the documentary, in keeping with Wingard and Albertin’s philosophy of education over monetary gain. Wingard has presented Dave’s story everywhere from elementary schools to retirement homes and has succeeded in persuading audiences of all descriptions to engage with the material.

“There’s still a lot of mystery to archaeology,” Wingard said. “I mean, you’ve got to have a love for doing it to understand it. … I tend to try to bring as many photos and documents as I can to back up what I’m speaking about, because that’s really going to draw people in.”

Though he’d never admit it, Wingard himself is an integral part of presenting this scientific material with an inherently somber tone in a way that audiences will respond to. And the film itself, which he co-wrote, hums with emotional energy in a way historical analyses rarely do.

The documentary is a patchwork of period photographs, artwork, reenactments and interviews with Dave scholars, tracing the path of the potter’s life from our first point of contact with him in his earliest pots to the end, where census records have lent insight into his eventual life as a freedman. Presupposing little and basing its analysis on the specific ways in which various jar engravings interacted with landmarks in the timeline of slavery, its attempt to reconstruct a life through a few dozen inscriptions might seem overly ambitious. But the reverence with which both the filmmakers and the experts they interview approach their subject — the feeling in the eyes of these scholars is palpable — combined with surprisingly well-shot reenactments starring a capable actor (Darion McCloud) allows the film to escape the traditional trappings of talking-head documentaries and give the viewer a real feel for Dave’s craftsmanship. Wingard made special reference to one particular inscription shown in the documentary: When Dave’s longtime master Lewis Miles told him that a handle he was sculpting would surely break, the potter responded by engraving beneath it, “LM says this handle will crack.” Of course, Wingard noted after the credits had rolled, the handle remains intact to this day. These inscriptions are deeply humanizing, ranging from verses wondering where the potter’s family had gone (“I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all—and every nation”) to references to his experiences as a slave (“Dave belongs to Mr Miles / wher the oven bakes & the pot biles”). It’s not hard to see why scholars find it so intriguing to piece together Dave’s life, nor why collectors are anxious to procure his wares.

After the film, Wingard produced the SRARP’s Dave jar, missing a lid but still wondrously intact. With sweeping motions, he demonstrated how its creator would have dipped it in glaze and set it aside, making note of the drip marks where Dave’s fingers once held the piece. Among a round of eager questions, one audience member asked, “How much is it worth?”

In total deadpan, Wingard looked at him and, as clearly as if it were rehearsed, responded, “It’s priceless.”