The Magnolia Phosphate Mine, A Fossil Site Near Charleston, South Carolina

The impossiblity of time travel frustrates me.  When I go on a vacation to the South Carolina coast, I wish I could travel to a condo that existed 100,000 years ago, so I could sit on a balcony and watch the now long vanished wildlife.  The area near what’s now Charleston, South Carolina was home to a cavalcade of beasts equaling, if not surpassing that of today’s famous east African national parks.  The old Magnolia phosphate mine, 10 miles north of Charleston, sparks my imagination because it  was a spectacular fossil site that produced an impressive list of species, including some surprising ones.

In 1865 union troops burned down the plantation house on the Runnymede estate.  The owner, Charles Pinckney jr., desperately needed money to rebuild his estate.  He began digging trenches on his property for phosphate nodules, and he also dredged the Ashley River, which bordered his property, for this lucrative resource.  From 1869 to 1910 Mr. Pinckney mined the phosphate, but more interestingly, collected all of the fossils he encountered while working.

An old phosphate mine on the island of Nauru.  This is what the trenches Mr. Pinckney worked must have looked like.  Source of the photo:

In 1957  his descendents donated his 198 accumulated specimens to the Charleston Museum.  The Pinckney family held on to the property until 1995, and now the Whitfield family owns it.  They rent the property out for weddings and other ceremonies.  It’s a beautiful piece of land with forests, picturesque lawns, salt marshes, a tidal river, and an amazing 1,000 year old oak tree.  Unfortunately, the rebuilt plantation house mysteriously burned down in 2002 (was it the ghosts of union troops?).  A satellite photograph reveals no fossil-bearing trenches which must have been filled in years ago.  However, rivers are public rights of way.  I suppose there’s nothing stopping modern fossil hunters from searching the nearby Ashley River for fossils, though scuba gear might help.

The source of this rich assemblage of fossils is a geological strata known as the Wando formation–an ancient back barrier island structure that existed during a time of higher sea level.  Part of the Wando formation sits on top of an earlier Pleistocene barrier island system known as the Penholoway, and another part of the Wando overlays the Oligocene formation.  Scientists believe the Wando formation dates to between 130,000 and 70,000 years BP.  This time period includes the Sangamonian Interglacial, when average annual temperatures were higher than those of today, and the early Wisconsinian Ice Age, when  temperatures gradually began to cool but were still moderate.  Early Ice Age winters along the South Carolina coast may have been even warmer than those of today.  Based on the species found, the environment was a mixture of forests and savannahs.

Apparently, the Wando formation is only four feet below the surface of the ground.  It’s overlain by sand.  Underneath, scientists describe the formation as a “blue mud” interspersed with rocks of phosphate nodules.  A resident living north of Charleston may be able to find fossils, simply by digging in their backyard because remains of extinct species have turned up all over the region.

The following is a list of species Charles Pinckney jr. discovered in his mines.  I also give the scientific names for the extinct species.


Giant ground sloth–Eremotherium laurillardi

Harlan’s ground sloth–Mylodon harlani

Jefferson’s ground sloth–Megalonyx jeffersonni

Glyptodont–Glyptotherium floridanum


Black Bear

Lesser short-faced bear–Arctodus pristinus

an indeterminate species of wolf, probably a dire wolf–Canis dirus




an extinct indetermined species of Capybara


Giant Beaver–Casteroides ohioensis

Cottontail rabbit

White-tail deer


Stag-moose–Cervalces scotti

Long-horned bison–Bison latifrons

an indetermined extinct species of bison

an indetermined extinct species of Llama

Flat-headed peccary–Platygonus compressus

Horse–Equus species?

Tapir–Tapirus haysii

Columbian mammoth–Mammuthus columbi

Mastodon–Mammut americanum


Giant tortoise–Hesperotestudo crassicuta



Long-nosed gar

Noticeably absent from the list are small rodents, birds, and the beautiful armadillo.  It seems likely that Mr. Pinckney didn’t notice small bones and only picked up the big showy fossils.  A modern day team of scientists would surely recover remains of small rodents, reptiles, and birds.  The beautiful armadillo commonly occurs in most southeastern fossil sites.  I wonder why no specimens were recovered here.

The two most surprising components of the Pinckney collection are the walrus and the stag-moose.  Walruses are considered beasts of the far north but during the Pleistocene were more widespread.  They occurred off the South Carolina coast when the climate was warmer than today’s, suggesting human hunting limits their range more than climate.

Photo of  the walrus is on file from the Nunatsiaq Online–a Nunavut newspaper.  Photo of the stag-moose skeleton by Saku Takakusaki.

The stag-moose tooth that Mr. Pinckney discovered is the southern most record for this magnificent extinct animal.  Hay originally misidentified it as a new species and gave it the scientific name Alces runnymedensis, meaning a moose named after the Runnymede Plantation where it was found.  However, subsequent studies have determined that the stag-moose isn’t closely related  to the modern moose, other than both being in the deer family.  Later observations of the tooth determined that it matches that of a large species of extinct deer referred to a Cervalces scotti.  Its common name is stag-moose or elk-moose.  It was slightly larger than a modern moose, its head resembled that of an elk, but it had a totally different antler structure.  This tooth is the only specimen of this species south of Virginia–it’s much more commonly found in northern states.  Nevertheless, there was a population of this great beast as far south as Charleston, and I assume there were some in north and maybe central Georgia as well.

Wow, what would modern hunters pay for the opportunity to go after one of these trophies?


Hay, O.P.

The Pleistocene of North America and its Vertebrated Animals From the States East of the Mississippi River and From the Canadian Provinces East of Longitude 95

Carnegie Institute viii 1923

Sanders, Albert

Additions to the Pleistocene Mammal Faunas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia

American Philosophical Society 2002


One Response to “The Magnolia Phosphate Mine, A Fossil Site Near Charleston, South Carolina”

  1. Caw Miller Says:

    Thanks for the great info. I too wish I could time travel to the Pleistoscene. There recently have been manatees in Pennsylvania. Those sea mammals are showing that they like a little vacation, just like us humans.

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