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A Trip to Camelot - Land Mammal Excavation From the Giant Cement Quarry in South Carolina

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A Trip to Camelot: Pleistocene Land Mammal Excavation Site

Giant Ground Sloth Excavation Site

This is a view of the complete Giant Ground Sloth excavation site that was at the Pleistocene site at Giant Cement.

Article posted in the July 2003 edition of Ecphora, published by the Calvert Marine Museum Fossil Club
By Paul R. Murdoch Jr.

On Friday, April 18 Hillary and myself were guests of Vance McCollum and Jim Knight for a day of fossil finding at the Giant Cement quarry in Harleyville, South Carolina. Jim, the Chief Curator of Natural History at the South Carolina State Museum, had only recently found out that quarry operations would no longer be able to maneuver around the dig site. The loss of the site was imminent, so with only a few weeks remaining, collecting was being pushed into high gear.

When we arrived, I was amazed to see the blazing white limestone in the mine. Neither Hillary nor I had ever collected in such an environment before and it seemed to us that if anyone spent a full day collecting in the bright sun at this place they would have the worst case of "snow blindness" that we could ever imagine. Fortunately for us, Camelot (it received this nick-name due to the large initial numbers of camel bones found at the site - see the related article in The Ecphora # 58) was high on a hill and in more recent deposits, so we would not suffer from the fierce sun exposure off of the Santee Limestone. Looking up to the site, we spotted trenches dug into the man made cliff face of the mine, which allowed the extra surface water to drain. These created "small" waterfalls at various points in the active mining area. It was a beautiful site!

Image of the fossil
bone layer and view of the fossil site in general

Although not taken on the day we visited, this photo shows exactly the layer the bones were in and gives a good view of the portion of the site in general.

We had a short walk to the site but, as in King Arthur's Camelot, the site was surround by a moat! The man made trenches that looked so serene from below were in fact 4 feet wide and over 30 feet deep! These had to be crossed by a small, removable "bridge" constructed of 2x4's and plywood. It took us a few moments to gather out courage to cross this but the veterans of the site didn't let it affect them and eyed us curiously from the other side. At least they were kind and respected our hesitation by not teasing us even if they did not fully understand our fear of heights.

Once we crossed the moat, we had arrived. Jim and Vance talked to us about the site and where the bulk of the finds had been made. They explained that the finds made at the site are believed to be dated from about 250,000 to 500,000 years ago and found in a clay/sand strata. The bones seemed to have been caught in a log and/or vegetation jam up during a flood event and were found concentrated in great numbers early in the excavation. Now fewer and fewer were being found but discoveries were still being made every day. We both hoped that we would be able to add to the list.

Jim Knight holding a tapir Jaw

Jim Knight holding a Tapir Jaw from the Land Mammal site.

Hillary and I choose to walk the site first and look over the spoil piles to get our eyes use to the sediments. It took some getting use to but "normal" finds began to pop out. It seems that numerous flood events had occurred at the site and had redeposited numerous sharks' teeth from the older layers. We found numerous large and small sharks teeth, including the sought after Augustidens and Ariculatus specimens. But mammal teeth were what we had our sights set on this day. After about a half hour of looking. it happened. Hillary spotted a black object near the top of a spoil pile and asked me to retrieve it. It turned out to be a small phosphate nodule. But within six inches of it was a well-preserved tapir tooth! We had our first piece of fossil treasure!! A few steps later another partial tooth was found. We showed both to Jim and he was thrilled. Turns out that the other partial tooth may in fact be from a bear - a first for the site!

With this good bit of luck under our belts we decided it was time to join the others in digging. I went with Vance and Hillary shadowed Jim. I've had some experience with field digs, primarily during a great stretch of luck during 2001 with the Calvert Marine Museum but not in this type of matrix ,so I observed Vance and copied his methods. Once confident in my abilities, I struck out on my own. I choose a section of trench were most of the bones had been recovered and stuck my shovel into the earth. The immediate "ting" sound that came from my shovel told me that I had hit bone. I called Vance over and we carefully uncovered the find. It was a fist-sized piece - a giant sloth toe bone! It had a beautiful pink marble color. They told me almost all of the bones in this layer were colored this way.

Now I was psyched! I had found a land mammal tooth and uncovered my first bone from its final resting place from what surely will end up being a famous and extensively documented land mammal site. The find assures that I'll be part of the documented history - What a thrill! I kept digging and in a few minutes hit more bone. Again it was an isolated piece and a toe bone, but from a different animal, a horse. I kept digging in the same layer and about an hour after starting I found a nearly complete deer vertebra. I was thrilled!!! I had coming hoping to find a bone and a tooth and I had already exceeded my expectations.

It's then that I noticed a shadow. Seems that I had been reclining so long in the same position digging that I had attracted the attention of vultures!! It was then that I realized that I might need to take a break and see what everyone else was up to. Another guest that day had come across a few rabbit bones and Vance was trying out several different locations but that was all that had been found so far by the group so I returned to my spot.

I kept digging and came across a seedpod! It looked like a modern acorn to me but only the shell remained. Jim said it was one of only 5 that had been recovered in such good shape from the site. Pretty cool. Not too soon after that I came across another bone. A well-preserved tapir vertebra with a detached, yet complete central process of about 6 inches in length! Must have come from a rather large specimen of that species!

Jim bagged and labeled all of the finds with the date and grid coordinates for his records. Everything that I found was dug out of a small area, less than 2 wide, 3 feet long and 2 feet deep. Not bad for such a small area! Although exciting, they were not "the finds" of the day. Vance came across a partially complete turtle shell that was sitting right on top of a llama leg bone. While digging them out he uncovered a small but almost complete 2" lower jaw section from an opossum with 4 teeth still in it!

First 3 rows are all Pleistocene Camelot Stuff and it's only partially viewable!!

First 3 rows are all Camelot Pleistocene Fossil Stuff and it's only partially viewable!!

After Vance's good fortune Hillary decided it was time to go so we thanked our kind hosts and took one more walk around. We still found some more sharks teeth and I found a small, well-worn piece of Archeocete squalmosal so with my fossil desires sedated by the days good fortune I did not put up a fuss and agreed to call it a day.

In closing, I would just like to THANK Jim and Vance for their hospitality before, during and after this trip. They were great to us and are good people. We wish them the best of luck in undoubtedly the many years worth of work that they have ahead of them with describing and cataloging the fauna. Thanks also to the folks at Giant Cement for the access that day to the site. It was a day that I hope I will always be able to remember.


First 3 rows are all Pleistocene Camelot Stuff and it's only partially viewable!!

First 3 rows are all Camelot Pleistocene Fossil Stuff and it's only partially viewable!!