Sharks teeth and street names – A moment of science

A Moment of Science

“The big draw in Charleston is shark teeth, people come from all over the world to look for them here.”

These black triangles tell the geologic history of our area- sea life that lived, died, and was fossilized in our soil millions of years ago. They also tell a more “recent” tale- one that follows the history of Charleston as it emerged from the Civil War.

Two timelines- separated by millennia, linked to a common material found in the Lowcountry: phosphate.

Digging Phosphate Near Charleston from the Pamphlet Collection at the South Carolina Historical Society

Phosphate- which you may find as the  black rocks and pebbles found on shorelines here, is a mineral containing Phosphorus- an element. Over millions of years- dissolved phosphorus originating from dead animals of the sea floor, moved onto our coastal shelf. Dr. Robert Boessenecker from the College of Charleston’s Paleontology department says, “That phosphorus… it can help fossilize bones.” Phosphate fossils, including all of our shark teeth, get that characteristic glossy black shine from this process. It also helps the fossil, whether it’s bone or teeth, become stronger and more resistant to being ground down.

Not too far beneath our feet, a shallow “goldmine” of phosphate, bones, and teeth was concentrated in the Charleston area. There it stayed without much interest until the late 1860s– when two scientists, Francis S. Holmes and St. Julien Ravenel, discovered that these black rock nodules were concentrated phosphate. This was a massive discovery as scientists recently found that phosphate was perfect for fertilizer, now necessary with the area’s agricultural focus shifting from large plantations to small sharecropping plots. Large phosphate mining companies, including the Ashley Phosphate company, sprang from this discovery and started to collect as much of the valuable rock, by any means necessary.

Laborers Washing Phosphate from the Pamphlet Collection at the South Carolina Historical Society

Teeth and bone fossils that cluster alongside the desired phosphate was concentrated and brought onshore, where anyone can find them in abundance today. The phosphate mining industry was highly successful- helping the city prosper as other areas struggled. In 1885 Charleston produced one half of the world’s phosphate. This boom was not to last, as mining declined by the turn of the century with phosphate mining ending for good in Charleston in 1938. This brief blip in post-war Charleston left signs, scars, and shark teeth still found today.

Special thanks to the South Carolina Historical Society, https://schistory.org/archives/start-research/visual-materials/, for the images.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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