Supervisory Archaeologist Dr. George Calfas with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Construction Engineer Research Laboratory is taking his passions outside the workplace to reach a wider audience, and in turn, changing the narrative of history.
Calfas’ doctoral research in the Edgefield District of South Carolina is bringing history to life and changing historical perspective on pottery production in the south during the antebellum period. Now, these incredible findings are on display for all to see at one of the most world-renowned museums — The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
During his research, Calfas and his team excavated 35,000 artifacts in one year — one of which was a kiln that was 5 times larger than what was originally anticipated. Discovering an artifact of this magnitude allowed the team to deduce that this site was much more than a “mom and pop” shop. The pottery was produced on an industrial scale, meaning at the time, enslaved Africans were used as the labor force. This discovery presented researchers with the opportunity to highlight and celebrate African American potters from that period.
“Day after day there was a new discovery, and you have this moment of ‘hey, we are rewriting history,’” said Calfas. “We are telling it differently; we are telling a richer history of the importance of this site.”
Meanwhile, curators at the MET had also prioritized expanding on this time in history and researched how they could tell the African American story in the antebellum period. With that mission in mind, they approached Calfas about his work. As a result, his findings are now on display in a new exhibition “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina.”
“It is humbling to know that the things we did for research have had such an impact on other people,” said Calfas. “Just knowing that our work was able to inspire someone else to do more with it is incredible.”
The exhibition presents approximately 50 objects from vessels attributed to literate pottery by poet David Drake, an enslaved African American potter who signed, dated and even included verses on his jars, to face vessels made by unknown enslaved Africans for personal practices
Calfas was invited to speak at the opening, giving his perspective on the research and discussing how he and his team were able to form this new perspective on the importance of stoneware.
“It was a unique experience to go to the opening of an exhibition at a museum the size and scale of the MET,” said Calfas. “On the first day, 700 people were in attendance.”
The exhibit is a collaboration between the MET, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the University of Michigan, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, where it will spend six months at each location.