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Finding Connections in Time for Tea

What do a sweetgrass teacup and a Surrealist sculpture have in common? One of our newest staff members, Giordano Angeletti explores our online collections and find some really interesting connections.

Just days after joining McKissick Museum as the new Curator of Exhibitions, we were sent home due to COVID-19. From home, to get my bearings, I started to explore the museum’s online collection. The McKissick Museum collects a surprising variety of objects encompassing fine art, folk art, minerals, fossils, plant specimens, political memorabilia, and historical artifacts tied to the University of South Carolina and the state of South Carolina.

Black and white photograph of African-American woman holding a sweetgrass basket, in front of a sweetgrass basket stand.
Mary Jane Bennett – Basketmaker from Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

As I made my way through the collection, two objects stood out for me: a cup and a saucer made out of sweetgrass, by Mary Jane Bennett. They made me smile and made me think about how many connections can be sparked by a simple object. The teacup is 4.5 inches in diameter and 2.75 inches high and, what I consider to be the matching plate, is 5.5 inches in diameter. Both objects’ bodies are made out of a single coil of sweetgrass. The handle on the cup is attached by the coils at the very top and bottom. In an interview, Bennett said that traditionally these objects would have been made to be functional rather than decorative artifacts, but at the time of the interview she recognized that they were starting to be bought as decorative items.

Bennett’s cup reminds me of Surrealist art on many levels. On a superficial level, there is nothing to see here; it is an everyday object that is immediately recognizable as such, yet it does not work. It does not work by design. It is a little larger than it is supposed to be; its sides are a little thicker than what a user would be used to drinking from; but most of all, it is a terrible vessel for liquids. The materials are just not suitable for the purpose at hand. This line of thinking fits well with my interest in finding out, “When does the ordinary becomes art?”. Does an object need to be functionally useless so that it can become an object intended to be consumed as art? Or is it that once we define and elevate a utilitarian object to artwork, do we cripple its capacity to be used in our lives? My thoughts about the cup and saucer with these existential questions I’m posing are probably not what Bennett was thinking about when making these objects; these ideas stem from my training in art history and as a practicing artist. The fact that such an artifact is so fascinating to me might be more telling about my thinking and sense of humor, than it is of Bennett’s.

Looking at Bennett’s work also makes me think of another famous artwork. While we will never be able to tell for sure where Bennett got her inspiration for the cup and saucer, when I look at her work, I immediately think of Meret Oppenheim’s Object—titled Le Déjeuner en fourrure (Lunch in fur). Oppenheim’s 1930s sculpture is a Surrealist work of art that toys with the notion of the everyday. At a minimum, the idea of bringing a fur-lined teacup to one’s lips would make most people uncomfortable. Similarly, using Bennett’s cup would prove awkward. It would drip liquid all over you and the grass would be rough and unpleasant to the lips. The fact that it is larger than we expect a teacup to be would compound the disorientation experienced.

That gap between recognizing the object as a teacup and recognizing how many ways both Bennett’s and Oppenheim’s pieces do not work as teacups is what generates meaning and causes us to question what we experience as ordinary.

An Old Collection Becomes New Again: The J. Harry Howard Collection

As far as hobbies go, becoming a lapidarist might not be a bad way to go.  I can’t really think of a better way to spend your free time than cutting diamonds and fashioning cabochons (a cut and polished gemstone). Just think, you’d never need to come up with another gift idea again! Thanks to J. Harry Howard, a native of Greenville S.C. and the benefactor behind McKissick’s impressive gem collection, all your lapidary dreams can come true.

An example of Howard Collection Beryl, also known as an Aquamarine

An example of Howard Collection Beryl, also known as an Aquamarine

A sample of Corundum (Sapphire) from the Howard Collection

A sample of Corundum (Sapphire) from the Howard Collection

A lapidarist is someone who cuts, polishes and engraves precious stones from their original rough form. The lapidary arts are often practiced professionally, but in 1936 Howard wrote the first instructional handbook geared towards the amateur lapidarist. “The art for some reason,” Howard wrote, “has always been passed down from generation to generation by apprenticeship only.”[1] Through his book Howard sought to bring lapidary art to the public, creating a text which would be both instructive and interesting to lapidarists of all skill levels. Howard’s book, to this day, is the only text dedicated to the pursuit of the armature lapidarist.

Mr. Howard, who was an electrical engineer by profession, was a notable collector of gems and minerals. Starting his collection in the 1920’s, he amassed an impressive variety of almost every known type of gem. Throughout the late 1940’s and into the 1960’s the University of South Carolina pursued a fruitless effort to acquire Mr. Howard’s collection. The August 25, 1967 minutes of the of the USC Board of Trustees states that when the Colburn Mineral Collection was purchased by the University in 1945, it was thought that the Howard Collection would “compliment it and provide a broadly based museum which would be of interest both to the public and to students.” [2]

Mr. Howard passed away in 1962, and “although his collection included virtually every known variety of gemstone, it was seen by relatively few people during his lifetime. This was due in large extent to his great modesty about his own accomplishments.”[3] Despite Mr. Howard’s overwhelming modesty about his collection, it was expected by the University’s board of trustees that Mr. Howard’s widow, Louise Howard, would donate the collection to the University. According to the minutes, in 1967 the collection was valued between $50,000 and $100,000.  At the time, it had been the museum’s intention to put Mr. Howard’s collection on permanent display in its entirety, with specimens occasionally on exhibit in the Geology Museum.

Although the complete collection is not currently on display here at McKissick, specimens can still be viewed in our natural science exhibit, Natural Curiosities. However, there is more to the Howard Collection than just gems and cabochons. In 1970, the University was bequeathed the gift of Mr. Howard’s grinding and lapidary equipment.  Significantly, much of the equipment had been designed by Mr. Howard himself, and still forms the basic template of lapidary equipment that is in production today. A letter dated February 24, 1977 from Kenneth Toombs, then the University’s Director of Libraries, enclosed an appraisal on the portion of the Howard Collection which included the machinery, lapidary rough, and Howard’s books and periodicals. Interestingly, the letter refers to the lengthy time lapse between the acquisition and the appraisal, citing a move in McKissick’s location and the fact that “the University was closed for two weeks due to the energy shortage” as explanations for the delay.

As we pack up our off-site storage and prepare for the big move, the Howard Collection has become a major part of the IMLS grant team’s daily thought. While the gems and minerals are being carefully stored here at the museum, much of Howard’s machinery was placed in our off-site storage facility. As we continue to pack up, much of Howard’s possessions have been unearthed and rediscovered for a new generation of lapidarists.

Some of Howard’s collection, inclusive of both equipment and gems, will be on display in our upcoming exhibit, Hidden Treasures: Rediscovering McKissick Museum’s Natural History Collections. The exhibit will run this coming summer, from May 19- August 20 on the third floor lobby. While I can’t promise you’ll walk away ready to cut your own precious stones, you will get the rare opportunity to see natural crystals, faceted gems, and some of the equipment used to evaluate gems, and a glimpse into the work of the IMLS team. See you there!

Alyssa Constad
Curatorial Assistant


The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.


[1] J. Harry Howard, Revised Lapidary Handbook, (Greenville, South Carolina) 1946. 1.
[2] University of South Carolina, Board of Trustees, Meeting Minutes, August 25, 1967.
[3] Ben Smith Jr, Valuable Gem Collection Given to the University of South Carolina, Lapidary Journal (August) 1969. 734.

A Nifty Garnet

Sometimes we come across an object that is just too neat to keep hidden.  We have so many interesting or beautiful objects that we are unable to exhibit because of space or time, so this blog is an invaluable tool to show off some of our pretties.

Garnet, while familiar even to those of us who are not geologists, more accurately refers to a group of minerals rather than an individual mineral type.  Garnet can be colored green, orange, the classic deep red, purple, and pink.   McKissck has examples of all of these colors, but this specimen really stood out.  This beautiful garnet (MCKS 30718) is grossular garnet, var. hessonite from Quebec, Canada.  The crystals are transparent gem quality, and the characteristic dodecahedral (12-sided) crystal habit is amazing.  These crystals are so cool they could almost be set in jewelry unfaceted!

Allison Baker
Curatorial Assistant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Hidden Treasures: Rediscovering McKissick Museum’s Natural History Collection

The IMLS grant team is happy to announce that we are working with Ned Puchner, McKissick Museum’s Curator of Exhibitions, to develop an exhibit that will open at the end of May. Hidden Treasures:  Rediscovering McKissick Museum’s Natural History Collection will feature the interesting objects we found during both grants, as well as some of the challenges we faced.  “Mining McKissick” will offer some sneak peeks of what will be on display.  We look forward to seeing you in the gallery!

Mercury is the only specimen in our collection that we store in its liquid state, since it is liquid at room temperature.  It’s chemical symbol is Hg, short for hydrargyrum, Greek for “silver water” and was named for the Roman god Mercury.  It has high surface tension, which means that it will have the lowest surface area possible.  You can see in video that instead of spreading out to fill the bottom of the vial, the mercury forms a bead with much lower surface area.  While mercury can be found in nature, it is more commonly ored from cinnabar.  30701.a




by Allison Baker
Curatorial Assistant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

A Shepard of Meteorites & Minerals

Museum collections don’t hold their physical or intellectual value purely with the specimens themselves. Collections, of any sort, can reveal a wealth of information about both their own personal histories and the histories of the collector. Why were they collected? Who collected them? When were they collected, and what made them valuable? At McKissick Museum, our historic natural science collections are no different. Within this material, much of our focus is based around Thomas Cooper, the esteemed University of South Carolina president and the source of our collection. However, pieces of our historic collection also bear the mark of other great men, including Charles Upham Shepard.

Charles Upham Shepard

Charles Upham Shepard

Although Charles U. Shepard has no distinctive connection to the University of South Carolina, he did make a significant contribution to the collection.  In 1853, Dr. Richard Brumby, a Chemistry professor at what was then South Carolina College, purchased a number of minerals and meteorites from Dr. Shepard, who at the time was well known as one of America’s first distinguished mineralogists. A Rhode Island native, Charles U. Shepard spent a year studying at Brown University before transferring to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Upon graduation in 1824, Shepard spent a year studying and offering private chemistry lessons in Boston, until he joined the faculty at Yale in 1827. In 1833 Shepard moved to Charleston to teach at the South Carolina Medical College, where he remained until 1870. During his time in Charleston, Shepard discovered the value of South Carolina phosphate deposits.  In his later years, Shepard divided his time teaching both at his alma matter Amherst College, and SC Medical College in Charleston.  He died in Charleston in 1886.

Shepard's letter to Prof. Brumby, June 1853

Shepard’s letter to Prof. Brumby, June 1853

During Shepard’s time in South Carolina, it is feasible that he crossed paths with Professor Richard Brumby. Although we are unsure of the relationship between the two, we do know of communications and the transaction between Shepard and Brumby, through two well preserved documents. Over the past few weeks the team here has been hard at work transcribing the contents of a letter Shepard penned to Brumby, and a list of specimens intended for sale. In case reading 161 year old script isn’t your thing, the letter reads:

N. Haven, Conn June 22
Prof. Brumby

My Dear Sir,

I have at last completed the collection to be offered to your college, and I shall dispatch the box to-morrow by express.

I shall be pleased to hear of your decision as soon as convenient, although you can consult your pleasure respecting payment.  Three months from this, will equally suit me. The health of my family will probably require me to visit Engl’d again this summer.  If so, I shall sail on the 30th for London.  My address will simply be, London until Aug 7th.  I would be pleased however, if you could communicate your decision respecting the collection to my family here under my present address; + they will let me know in Engl’d.

The minerals sent, you will see, are among the rarest and most difficult to obtain (for the most part), although not handsome, or ∧often in large specimens.

Very truly & respectfully yours,

C U Shepard

Shepard’s offering consisted of 99 specimens, and he noted that “the meteorites are chosen so as to illustrate as far as possible all the leading varieties among these bodies…  The collection if taken, will make the Columbia cabinet the 2nd in point of numbers and variety in the U. States, in possession of any college.  The Yale is the first.”  Of the original 99 specimens, McKissick is still in possession of 72 specimens. Part of the mission of our current IMLS grant work is to identify these historic specimens, and ensure that they are properly cataloged and documented.  However, some specimens were lost in the midst of the Civil War, some were transferred to other institutions, and yet others simply misplaced in the bustle of the past 161 years, making our job easier said than done.

CUS inventory pg5

A page from Shepard’s original inventory list

In 1877 Shepard sold the majority of his personal collection (more than 25,000 specimens!) to Amherst College, though it was destroyed in a fire in 1882. He immediately began collecting again and, after his death, his son donated the collection in part to the Smithsonian, and again to Amherst College.  To see some of Shepard’s minerals, his letter (and crafty penmanship) for yourself, be sure to stop by the third floor of McKissick Museum and check out the Natural Curiosities gallery!

by Alyssa Constad
Curatorial Assistant


The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Location, Location, Location!

Tourmaline crystals formed on a quartz crystal from Minas Gerais, Brazil

McKissick Museum’s mineral collection originates from all around the world.   Nearly every continent is represented – save for Antarctica.  Some of these locations produce fantastic specimens, or are type localities (the location where a mineral was first discovered), while other locations are no longer open for collection.


Enhydro Quartz from Iredell County, North Carolina


Enhydro Quartz from Iredell County, North Carolina

As you might expect, our mineral collection contains specimens from many southeastern localities.  North Carolina, for example, produces enhydro quartz, an uncommon habit in which quartz crystals formed with tiny pockets of gas or liquid in them.  This quartz crystal is from Iredell County, North Carolina.  The pink arrow is pointing to two movable air bubbles in the same pocket, which is how we know that there is water in the crystal. It’s pretty amazing to think that water from millions of years ago can be preserved in a crystal!  


Minas Gerais, a state in Brazil, is another site that produces interesting specimens.  Some of its mines date back to the late 1600’s, when Portuguese explorers discovered gold there.   Mining played an important part in Minas Gerais’s history, and the name itself roughly translates to “general mines.”  Gold was the primary goal, but other minerals found in Minas Gerais were also valuable.  McKissick has two gemstone-quality crystals on display from this locality, with twenty-six more specimens in the collection.  The images above, represent a small sample of McKissick’s Minas Gerais specimens. 

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Another famous mineral collecting locality is Tsumeb, Namibia.  Like Minas Gerais, the area was established by a colonial power as a means to extract the wealth of the land.  In this case, it was Germany who first profited from the incredible variety and quality of Tsumeb’s minerals.  Tsumeb is known for containing superior specimens of dioptase, azurite, and malachite.  The unique combination of metals and other elements that form the basis for minerals also means that there are at least twenty mineral specimens found only in Tsumeb.  McKissick’s specimens from this location do Tsumeb’s reputation justice.

Brian Dolphin and Allison Baker
McKissick Museum
 The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

A Brief Survey of Historic Gold Mining in the Carolina Slate Belt

When people think of the history of gold mining in the United States, they most likely imagine the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, with images of grizzled prospectors traveling westward to make their fortune. However, what most people don’t know is that 50 years before the California Gold Rush, the Carolinas were a predominant region for gold mining in America. In fact, when gold was discovered in California in 1848, a large number of the experienced miners that went West had gained much of their mining experience in the Carolinas.

The earliest known substantial discovery of gold in the United States was in 1799 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, near Georgeville. A popular story goes that a 12-year old boy named Conrad Reed found a seventeen-pound nugget in the Little Meadow Creek by the Reed family home, and that his family used the large nugget as a doorstop for a few years until it was purchased for $3.50. The elder John Reed eventually realized his mistake and began mining the area around the creek, and his efforts were quickly rewarded. This eventually led to the first “gold rush” in American history. This “rush” however, actually happened at a slow and steady pace over several years, with gold mining in North Carolina eventually experiencing a real boom in the 1830s, and it briefly became second only to agriculture in terms of economic importance in that state.

Gold in South Carolina can be found in most of the Piedmont region, an area northwest of the Fall Line (a geologic boundary between older metamorphic and igneous rocks and the younger sedimentary rocks of the Coastal Plain). The gold bearing rock formations are part of the Carolina Slate Belt; a large package of similar rock formations extending from Virginia to Georgia. The South Carolina section contains volcanic and sedimentary rocks that were formed during the Late Proterozoic Persimmon Fork Formation, around 550 million years ago.

Haile Gold Mine

In 1827, another substantial gold deposit was discovered in eastern Lancaster County in South Carolina, near the town of modern-day Kershaw, on the property of Benjamin Haile. The Haile mine would operate intermittently throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In nearby Chesterfield County, the Brewer Mine was opened in 1828 and was extensively mined. The Haile and Brewer mines were the most productive mining outfits in South Carolina at this time, but the production of gold in both North and South Carolina went through periods of waxing and waning during the 19th century, and gradually declined, with much of the national focus shifting out west to California by the 1850s. Additionally, the decline of gold mining during this time in the Carolinas has been attributed by historians to the tightening of money markets in New York, inadequate technology for geological conditions, inaccurate speculation, and the eventual start of the Civil War in 1861.   At least 275 thousand ounces of gold were extracted intermittently between then and 1942, when the gold mine was ordered closed as nonessential to the war effort during World War II.


MCKS 0054 – Sample of phyllitic gold ore from Haile Gold Mine, Lancaster County, SC.

Haile Gold Mine experienced a second boon of exploration in the late 19th century, with Carl Adolph Thies being hired on as the general manager and superintendent. Thies had successfully introduced the “barrel chlorination process” (sometimes called the “Thies process” ) to the Haile mine to improve productivity, yielding as much 90 percent of gold from sulfide ore, much more than the previous standard of around 40%. Thies’ mining innovations and management skills made the Haile Gold Mine the most profitable and productive gold mining operation east of the Mississippi. The Thies family’s operation of the Haile Gold Mine continued to be successful until 1908, when a tremendous boiler explosion in the stamp mill killed three workers, including Ernest Thies, son of the elder Adolph Thies. Several others were injured, and the main operating mill of the mine was destroyed. Within four years after the explosion, the mine closed yet again.

In recent years, there is a much-renewed interest in gold exploration in the Carolinas. Since 2007, Romarco Minerals Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based company has purchased around 10,000 acres around Haile Gold Mine, including the site of the mine itself. Romarco’s projections state that there may be as much as 3.1 million ounces of gold at the Haile mine, and that it will produce an average of 150,000 ounces of gold a year for five years, with current mining efforts that could go on for as much as the next 20 years. Prior to current exploration, the Haile Mine has produced over 350,000 ounces of gold since 1827.

The Dorn Mine

The Dorn Mine in McCormick County, South Carolina was another incredibly productive mine through the 1850s. Gold was initially discovered there in 1852 by William Burkhalter Dorn, a descendent of German immigrants who came to South Carolina in 1764. Dorn was born into a family of modest means, but he was more than aware of the Carolina gold mining craze that had ebbed and flowed for a few decades after 1799.

Dorn firmly believed that exploring gold in the region would pay off with the fortune he sought. Between 1835 and 1852, Dorn made repeated attempts at prospecting in the Western South Carolina region, alternately supplementing his search for mineral wealth with a modest farming operation, carpentry work, and serving as a local magistrate. Finally, in 1852, at the age of 53, and near bankruptcy and foreclosure from a combination of his failures in both prospecting and farming, Dorn discovered a large amount of gold on the Peak Hill section of property owned by John Hearst, a wealthy neighbor that had leased prospecting rights on his property to Dorn for a small amount.


MCKS 3113 – Gold flakes from the Dorn Mine, McCormick County, SC.

Full-scale mining operations were soon underway, and in less than a year and a half, Dorn’s first venture had produced over $300,000 worth of gold.  At the zenith of production, as much as $9,000 of gold were pulled from the mine.  While production at the Dorn Mine was enough to make Dorn a very wealthy man in the immediate years, by the late 1850s, the yields from the mine began to fluctuate.  During the Civil War, William Dorn spent a considerable amount of his personal wealth in support of the Confederacy, and by the war’s end, his wealth was greatly diminished.  Subsequent mining efforts of manganese ore at the Dorn Mine in the last 120 years have yielded success, but no recent efforts at the site have matched the heyday of gold mining there during the 1850s.

by Justin Young
Curatorial Assistant

Sources Used

Botwick, Brad, and Pope, Natalie – “Gold Mining In the Carolinas: A Context for Archaeological Resources Management”, New South Associates Technical Report submitted to Haile Gold Mine Inc. , taken from

Edmonds, B.F., and Lininger, Jay L., -“Billy Dorn’s Gold: A History of the Dorn Gold Mine, McCormick, South Carolina” Matrix: A Journal of the History of Minerals, Spring 1998.

Nitze, Henry B.C., and Wilkens, H.A.J., –  “Gold Mining In North Carolina and Adjacent South Appalachian Regions”, North Carolina Geological Survey, Bulletin No. 10.

The Lancaster County Library website’s Historic timeline page for Haile Gold Mine

Romarco Mineral’s Haile Gold Mine project site –

North Carolina Historic Sites’ webpage on the Reed Gold Mine/early Carolina Gold Rush

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Digging into Dino Dung

Through the rare process of fossilization, we are sometimes privileged enough to observe all sorts of fascinating objects – the skulls of gigantic predators like Tyrannosaurus and Mosasaurus, the footprints of dinosaurs preserved in prehistoric mudflats, or the 260 million-year old morphology of cynodonts, which display ancestral traits that are still found in modern mammals today, including humans.

While we revel in our curiosity and wonder over the very notion that such creatures existed, it may be easy to overlook the fact that they lived, died, ate, reproduced, and *ahem*, relieved themselves, like any other living animal today.

Occasionally, their feces become fossilized. The scientific term for these waste specimens is “coprolites”, derived from the Greek words “kopros” (dung) and “lithos” (stone). They were first discovered (and subsequently named) by the Reverend William Buckland, an English theologian and paleontologist.

coprolite for blog image 1


Yellow coprolites from what was most likely a carnivorous animal, from USC McKissick Museum’s Natural Science collection.

Coprolites are included in a category of paleontology known as “trace fossils”, which also includes foot tracks, vomit, and cololites (made up of materials from the lower digestive tract of the animal, before ever having a chance to be excreted from the body). Although coprolites are more rare than other fossil types, if the conditions are right, they can be found in great amounts in the same localities.

Once the urge for scatological humor subsides, there is actually a great deal of paleoecological information that can be gleaned from the study of coprolites. They may contain pieces of bone, muscle, and sinew eaten by carnivores, or leaves, roots, seeds and pollen from plants ingested by herbivores, which can tell us about the ancient local flora during a particular era. There are also sometimes traces of parasitic organisms that may be found within them as well.

As fossilization in general is a rare process, the fossilization of coprolites is especially dependent upon a number of factors – the original organic content of the feces, the amount of water within them, and the local environment of where they were excreted and subsequently deposited. At the time of excretion/deposition, these environments are usually in biomes that are mixtures of water and land (swamps, bogs, shores of rivers and lakes, etc.) A typical perfect setting for the preservation of coprolites would be an alluvial plain near a river, where they are interred within a dried section of soil and dehydrated, and then later buried by a timely flooding of the river.

coprolite for blog image 3

Crocodilian coprolite from the Paleocene Epoch (approximately 65 million years ago), Rhems Formation, Kingstree, South Carolina. This specimen is from the Natural Science Collection of the South Carolina State Museum.

It is more common to find coprolites from the feces of carnivorous animals than that of herbivores. This is due to the greater amounts of certain minerals (calcium phosphate, in particular) in carnivore feces, which often contain the bone matter of organisms that were consumed by a predator or scavenger.
Despite the potential for new information from coprolites, their study presents some inherent difficulties. It is only on certain occasions that scientists are able to tell exactly what species of animal that a coprolite specimen came from, but the uber-specialized field of “paleoscatology” has emerged onto the scene in recent decades to help paleontologists in further studying and explaining coprolites in a more comprehensive way.

One of the world’s leading experts in paleoscatology is Dr. Karen Chin, at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, Colorado. Chin has examined many types of coprolite specimens, most famously those of the genus Tyrannosaurus. She had initially been able to identify the specimens as coming from a carnivorous animal, since they contained crushed bone fragments. She was also able to note that during the particular geological era in which they were deposited, there were no other known carnivorous dinosaurs in the region that could have produced such a large sample of feces, save for the dreaded T. rex.

Even further, she was able to identify the crushed bone fragments in the specimen as having been from the frill bone of a Triceratops. Altogether from a few coprolite samples, Chin was able to extract definite subsistence patterns for Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as providing evidence that their massive jaws and teeth helped them to not only tear off chunks of flesh, but also to crush bones as they fed. Chin’s innovative work provides us with a classic case example of how a detailed study of coprolites can provide us with a new kind understanding of paleoecology that we might not get from other sources.

by Justin Young
Curatorial Assistant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Coal in the Collections

Coal forms from plant matter exposed to heat, pressure, and time.  It is a common energy source worldwide, and has been for centuries.  China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan account for 76% of coal use worldwide.  The US gets 45% of its energy from coal.  In addition to an energy source, coal is used as activated carbon in filters, like air and water purification.  It is also used in carbon fiber, which is a strong, lightweight material used to construct mountain bikes, tennis rackets, and high-end automobiles.

There are five categories of coal specimens, differentiated by the amount of pressure exerted during its formation, progressing from peat, lignite, bituminous coal, anthracite, to graphite.  Coal can be either sedimentary or metamorphic, and is relatively soft compared to other rocks and minerals.  McKissick’s collection has examples of four of the five categories.

Peat bog reserve in France, image from Wikimedia Commons

Peat – Peat is not technically coal, but is the precursor to coal.  It is a mass of plant material that solidifies after being exposed to heat and pressure.  Peat is a common historical energy source in places like Ireland, Finland, and Russia.  Peat is also useful in gardening as a soil additive to enhance water retention. Peat is the only category not represented in McKissick’s collections.

Lignite – Lignite is the softest, lowest grade of coal, sometimes called brown coal.   Its color ranges from brown to black.  Lignite burns easily, and is volatile.  It is prone to spontaneous combustion, making storage and travel problematic.  Lewis and Clark tested lignite’s combustion, making their tests the first recorded use of coal as a fuel.  Jet, commonly cut, polished and used as jewelry, is a type of lignite.

Bituminous – Bituminous coal is the most common type mined in the United States.  It is the next grade up from lignite.  It is dark brown to black, and contains a tarlike substance called bitumen.  It is considered a sedimentary rock.  One type of bituminous coal in McKissick’s collection is called cannel coal.  Cannel coal burns easily and brightly, and its name comes from the Old English pronunciation of candle. Cannel coal is not a common source of energy anymore, but artists still carve and polish it for sculptures.

Anthracite – Anthracite is the coal of choice for energy sources.  It is the hardest coal, and burns the hottest.  It is black, shiny, and submetallic, and considered a metamorphic rock.  Anthracite coal is the purest coal, which makes it burn cleaner; resulting in high demand though it is more scarce than other forms of coal.  China is the worldwide leader in anthracite coal mining.  Anthracite is the coal mined in areas like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and it is so important in Pennsylvania that the city of Scranton dedicated a museum to coal, coal miners, and the use of coal in the area called the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum.

Graphite – Graphite, like peat, is not technically considered coal, but rather a mineral.  It is the most compact variety, though it has a hardness of only 1-2, out of 10 on the Mohs Scale of hardness.  Anthracite can be considered a transition stage from bituminous coal to graphite.  The compact nature of graphite makes it difficult to burn, so it is rarely used as an energy source.  Instead we use it as the “lead” in pencils.  It is also powdered and used in industrial lubricants and brake shoes for heavy vehicles.

By Allison Baker

Curatorial Assistant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Thomas Cooper – A Collector of Minerals and Cornerstone of SC College

In 1819, from his office at the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson prepared a statement regarding the resignation of his close friend and fellow faculty member, Thomas Cooper.   “I do sincerely lament the loss of (Cooper) whom I had looked to as the cornerstone of our edifice.”  Cooper resigned without ever teaching a single class.  Powerful members on Virginia’s clergy forced his resignation.

Fortunately, the South Carolina College – later University of South Carolina – eventually lured the professor to Columbia, who as President served as our cornerstone during USC’s formative years, and who as mineral collector, would initiate one of the greatest mineralogical collections in the Nation, found today at the McKissick Museum.

Thomas Cooper was born in 1759 in London.  He attended Oxford where he studied Medicine and Law and collected minerals in the English countryside as a hobby.  He moved to Pennsylvania in 1793 and had a wide range of jobs before settling down as President of USC for twelve years commencing in 1821.  He befriended Thomas Jefferson during these early years in the United States.  Their correspondence reveals a shared similar political belief and common scientific pursuits.  Unfortunately he was not able to devote all his time to scientific pursuits.  Daniel Walker Hollis, in his 1951 history of the University of South Carolina explains how Cooper was a “devoted follower of Thomas Jefferson, whose cause he supported with such a trenchant pen that he was indicted under the Alien and Sedition Laws passed by the John Adams Administration.”[i]

Cooper held a variety of professorships in the Northeast before settling down in Columbia and serving as the college president.  He never lost interest in his hobby of hunting for minerals and the collection boasts a number of South Carolina gathered minerals.


MCKS # 3140 – Sample of Galena collected by Thomas Cooper in England.

The Mining McKissick blog is proud to reveal that there are currently 205 mineral specimens identified as collected by Thomas Cooper.  Identifying, cataloging and labeling a specimen as Cooper’s is extra special.  Perhaps yet-to-be cataloged mineral drawers will reveal more Cooper specimens in the second year of the IMLS Grant.  Fortunately, our thorough examination and cataloging is not wholly unprecedented.  Daniel Martin, an employee at USC embarked on a similar mission in 1902.  He noted that a previous professor, Richard T. Brumby, cataloged them with a “C” for the collector’s surname.  Martin further categorized them as; “Collected in Europe, prior to coming to the U.S.”; “Collected in Pennsylvania, chiefly, prior to coming to S.C. “; or “Collected hereabout, chiefly.”


Daniel Martin classified the Cooper Specimens by locality.

Thomas Cooper died in 1839 and is buried at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Columbia.  His headstone reads “ERECTED BY A PORTION OF HIS FELLOW CITIZENS, TO THE MEMORY OF THOMAS COOPER.”  Today, Thomas Cooper’s memory lives on in various ways at the University at South Carolina, including through the mineral collection at McKissick Museum!


[i] Hollis, Daniel W., University of South Carolina: Volume I. South Carolina College. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1951, pp 77

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.