Lowcountry fossil collection dating back billions of years formally donated to College of Charleston

The skeletons in Mace Brown’s closet now belong to the College of Charleston and they are on display for free.

Mace Brown Natural History Museum

WHAT: A collection of animal fossils, skulls and skeleton reconstructions dating as far back at least 3 billion years. Nearly all are indigenous to the Lowcountry, and any number of them were found here.

WHERE: College of Charleston School of Sciences and Mathematics Building, 202 Calhoun St.

WHEN: Open to the public daily from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. except Wednesdays.

ADMISSION: Free. For more information, 953-5589 or 953-5592.

At least 1,500 assorted fossils are on view at a time — mastodon bones, a saber-toothed cat, the paw of as giant sloth that’s as big as a shovel spade with claws the size of little axes. More amazing: 90 to 95 percent of the collection are animals and some plants that were native to the Lowcountry, and a lot of them actually were collected here.

We’re talking a 20,000- to 60,000-year-old mastodon dug from a drainage ditch in North Charleston, a 30 million-year-old baleen whale found by divers in Berkeley County, a 28 million-year-old dugong — a manatee-like creature — of a type that’s never been found before. That one also came from North Charleston.

The whale “had a tough life,” Mace observed recently as he gave a visitor a tour. Scars on the skeleton show it had broken its jaw and been bitten at least twice by a shark.

The fossils were collected and many prepared by Mace over the years. They had all but overrun his Mount Pleasant home before he decided to donate them for educational use and for the public.

A 3-year trial “loan” to the college recently was formalized as a gift.

“Every first class institution should have a natural history museum and he basically gave us one,” said anthropology professor Dana Cope. The collection “is amazing in its quality, its diversity and its timespan.”

Brown was a “science nut” as a kid, who started with a rock collection at 7 years old. He began to take notice of fossils in the rocks, then started going to fossil shows and before long, “typical of me I was neck deep into it,” he said.

Today he’s a retirement and investment planner. But he can’t keep the marvel out of voice as he describes how a whale skeleton millions of years old was found in the Wando River only a few miles from his home.

That’s the real significance of the collection, Cope suggested. Nearly every creature you gape at, you could have seen walking or swimming around you in prehistoric times.

That’s tiny horses and a beaver the size of a black bear, ten different kinds of elephants, a creature that’s a cross between an armadillo and a sloth with a shell close to the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

The ancient whales were meat eaters with skulls resembling alligators. The beaver skull is one of only a handful that have been found intact.

The museum even has a “fishbowl” preparation room where you can watch Mace and other researchers at work. It’s the sort of wow place that makes “science nut” kids out of everybody.

A cast of a 4-foot-wide open whale mouth on the wall features teeth found in the Lowcountry. A wall features an exhibit of dinosaur bones as a kid-pleaser even though they’re not native — the Lowcountry was hundreds of feet underwater during dinosaur times.

An 8-foot tall cave bear rears at visitors from the glassed-in exhibit at the entrance.

Yeah, it’s from his collection too, Mace admits with a sheepish grin. Cave bears weren’t found in the Lowcountry, but “it’s an eye-catcher from the hall.”

It might be the least authentic exhibit in the museum. Cave bears didn’t rear, it would have broken their hind legs to stand up on them.

And besides, it’s only 20,000 years old or so.

“It’s doesn’t really qualify as a fossil,” Mace said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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