Natural Treasures:

Connecting to the Natural World

The geologic collections at McKissick Museum date to the 1823 when the South Carolina College, now known as the University of South Carolina, purchased the collection of Thomas Cooper who was serving as college president at the time. Throughout the 19th century, significant mineral, rock, and fossil collections were acquired for research and instruction, with faculty members serving to maintain and manage the collections. In 1906 Daniel Strobel Martin was hired to inventory and catalog the geologic collection, effectively working as the first professional curator. He was succeeded by a series of academically based collections managers over the next 70 years, until McKissick Museum was established, and the collection was transferred from the Geology Department.

Geological collections are integral to the understanding of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history—one that is filled with climate and landscape changes, magnetic pole migrations, landslides, volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes. Geological collections, both modern and historic, provide a framework to build both a bridge to the past and a window to the future.


A meteorite is a natural object of extraterrestrial origin that survives passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and hits the ground. When in space, these items are termed meteoroids and they range from dust-sized particles to under a kilometer in size. Asteroids are between 1-1,000 km, and objects in space larger than 1,000 km are termed planetoids. A meteor, or shooting star, is the streak of light created when a meteoroid burns as it passes through our atmosphere. Once a meteoroid lands on Earth, we call it a meteorite.

      Meteorites can be generally broken down into 3 main types, though there are more than 50 classifications recognized by The Meteoritical Society. In general, meteorites are classified as either iron, stony, or stony-iron. Click the links below to learn more.

Stony meteorites are very common, forming about 93% of all meteorites. They can be either chondrites (which contain small round chondrules) or achondrites (no chondrules). They often look like Earth rocks and consist of silicate minerals. Stony meteorites are thought to be fragments of the mantle or crust of differentiated planetoids.


Minerals are the building blocks of rocks, sort of the ingredients that make up rocks. They are made of elements, either isolated or in combinations, and have 5 inherent properties:

  1. naturally occurring
  2. inorganic
  3. ordered internal framework or a crystal structure
  4. definite chemical composition
  5. solid

Minerals are classified according to their chemical composition, which you can investigate further with the links below. Minerals are often identified based on characteristics such as color, luster, streak, cleavage, and hardness.

Oxide and hydroxide minerals are composed of a metal element (iron, aluminum, zinc, etc) combined with either oxygen (O), a water molecule (H2O), or a hydroxide molecule (OH). This group of minerals is incredibly diverse, from hard to soft, and black to extremely colorful.



In nature, carbon atoms join with 3 oxygen atoms to form the carbonate ion, CO3. These ions combine with metal cations to form carbonate minerals, which commonly formed in sedimentary and oxidizing environments. Common characteristics of carbonates are transparency, a white streak, generally low hardness with good to perfect cleavage, and many are soluble in acidic solutions.

These three groups of minerals are formed when one or more metal elements (lead, iron, aluminum, etc.) combines with either phosphate (PO4), vanadate (VO4) or arsenate (AsO4) ions, respectively. Minerals in these groups are typically colorful, have average hardness and high density.




Silicate minerals are the most common minerals on Earth and are composed of a combination of metal elements (lead, iron, aluminum, etc.) with the silicate ion (SiO4). This ion consists of one silica atom combined with 4 oxygen atoms through strong covalent bonding, resulting in the silica tetrahedron. The manner in which numerous silica tetrahedra are combined (isolated, as single or double chains, in rings, sheets, or 3-dimensional frameworks) determines the subclass of silicate mineral and also has a lot to do with the physical characteristics of the mineral. For example, micas are sheet silicates that split apart very easily, while quartz and feldspars are both framework silicates that are very hard, durable, and insoluble. Many silicate minerals can have varying amounts of metal elements, so this is represented in their chemical formula with variable letters, like M, X, Y, or Z. These variable letters can stand for elements like calcium, iron, manganese, nickel, magnesium, etc. in differing combinations and proportions.

Isolated silica tetrahedra – Nesosilicates

Ring silicates – Cyclosilicates

Sheet silicates – Phyllosilicates

Framework silicates – Tectosilicates

Dr. Charles Upham Shepard, Sr.

Dr. Charles Upham Shepard, Sr. (1804-1886) was a world-renowned mineralogist who studied and worked at institutions such as Amherst College, the University of Cambridge, and Yale University. While at Yale, he worked alongside his mentor Benjamin Silliman. By 1834, Shepard was splitting his time between New Haven, CT and Charleston, SC where he was a professor of chemistry at the Medical College of SC. In 1847, he returned to Amherst College to teach full time until his retirement in 1877.

The Shephard collection at the University of South Carolina was purchased in 1853, brokered by Richard Brumby. At the time Shepard noted that the collection at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) was “second in point of numbers and variety in the United States… The Yale [cabinet] is the first.” The collection contains ten meteorites collected by Shepard, forming half of the university’s meteoritic collection.


Rocks are naturally occurring aggregates of one or more minerals. While minerals are classified based on their chemical composition, rocks are typically broken down into 3 types based on how they formed. Click on the links below to learn more about each rock type and see examples from McKissick’s collection.

Igneous rocks form when molten rock material solidifies. Intrusive igneous rocks cool slowly beneath the earth’s surface, while extrusive igneous rocks cool quickly after erupting from the earth’s surface. Igneous rocks are also classified based on their composition, either basaltic or granitic. Granitic rocks are often light in color because they are rich in feldspars and silicate minerals, while basaltic rocks are rich in iron and magnesium minerals and tend to be dark in color. There are no examples of extrusive granitic rocks below as they more typically form as ash or pumice.

Basaltic rocks

Granitic rocks

Sedimentary rocks form through one of two basic methods: cementation of sediments, or through chemical or organic precipitation. Cemented sediments are considered clastic rocks, which form when weathered particles of minerals or other rocks accumulate, settle into one place and are cemented together. The particles, or clasts, can be large (gravel-sized), sand-sized, or even microscopic (clay-sized). Fossils are most often found in sedimentary rocks.

Clastic Sedimentary Rocks

11287 – Conglomerate from Maryland, Leesburg Member of the Balls Bluff Siltstone. Rock sample of dark brown calcite-cemented conglomerate. Clasts include light gray chert, white calcite, dark gray limestone, and quartz. This specimen has been cut on three sides making a blocky corner, and one of those faces has been polished. Although historically referred to as Potomac Marble, Potomac Breccia, or Calico Marble, this rock is actually a sedimentary conglomerate of Triassic age. SC College Catalog of Minerals notes this rock was used in the “Capitol Rotunda” which was known as the US House of Representatives in the 19th century but is now known as Statuary Hall. This rock was used to form the columns there, but builders quickly discontinued using it because the differing hardness of the loosely cemented clasts made it very difficult to work with. From the collection of Lewis Reeves Gibbes.

Chemical/Organic Sedimentary Rocks

Metamorphic rocks were once igneous, sedimentary, or previous metamorphic rocks that have gone through a phase change. Typically, metamorphic changes are due to exposure to high heat or pressure, hot mineral-rich fluids, or a combination of these external conditions. Two types of metamorphic rocks are foliated and non-foliated. Foliated metamorphic rocks have a visible texture of parallel arrangement of minerals. Non-foliated metamorphic rocks are crystalline.



A fossil is defined as any evidence of ancient life. This includes bones, teeth, footprints, and even impressions of leaves or insects trapped in rock. Most paleontologists consider something to be fossilized if it is older than 10,000 years old. Anything younger than this arbitrary date is considered “historic.” Fossils are used to provide relative ages of rock units. Occasionally a rock unit can be radiometrically dated to provide an absolute date, which can then be correlated to the fossils from that unit.  These dated fossils, called index fossils, can be used to determine the age of other rock units as long as the fossils are easy to identify, abundant, lived for a short period of time, and were widely distributed geographically. Explore the links below to learn more about fossils.

Body fossils refer to evidence of ancient life that includes the preserved remains of a previously living organism, like bones or teeth. Most animal life can be divided into two basic categories: those with backbones – vertebrates, and those without back bones – invertebrates (this group is often represented in the fossil record by shells and corals).



Trace fossils are preserved evidence of past biological activity. Also known as ichnofossils, trace fossils do not preserve anatomy like body fossils, but rather, they preserve the behavior of extinct animals. Common ichnofossils are feeding/running/resting traces, but the most notable are footprints and trackways. Two examples below include raindrops which are technically sedimentary features (not trace fossils) because they don’t represent the behavior of an animal.

Artwork © Ray Troll 2022

Geologic Time Scale

Geologists and paleontologists work together to form stratigraphic columns that represent the story of the history of the earth. Because there is no complete stratigraphic column of rock present on the Earth, these scientists correlate stratigraphic columns from all over the world to create a composite geologic column. This correlation is based on rock types and fossil succession and is used to create the Geologic Time Scale. Each of the major time units is characterized by a broadly common fossil assemblage, with boundaries placed where major and abrupt changes in faunal assemblages occur. These abrupt changes are known as extinction events. Initially, the geologic time scale was a relative scale, but with continued research in radiometric dating and index fossils, paleontologists have been able to add absolute time to the scale. These numbers are continually being refined.

About HSN

In 2016 McKissick Museum applied for and was awarded a Advanced Support for Innovative Research Excellence (ASPIRE) award from the University of South Carolina. The project objectives were threefold:

  1. Digitize objects and associated archives of significant historic collections from the University of South Carolina’s collecting institutions (A.C. Moore Herbarium, McKissick Museum, and South Caroliniana Library)
  2. Merge those digital records of natural history collections into a comprehensive, cross-referenced database accessible to the public online
  3. Utilize newly created digital images to enhance exhibits through interactive touchscreens

In 2018 the project was expanded through funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This new phase of the project added the archives, specimens, and objects related to seven additional naturalists, as well as materials held at The Charleston Museum. Additionally, 3 digital exhibitions featuring McKissick’s collections were developed.

These archival collections not only document the 19th-century investigations of the natural environment in South Carolina, but they also illustrate the establishment and advancement of the field of natural history. The material collections, including botanical, fossil, and mineral specimens, exemplify the natural world that existed two hundred years ago, and are sometimes the only representatives of these taxa in existence due to extinction and loss of geologic localities. Additionally, these objects are not always appropriate for exhibition due to their sensitive or fragile nature; digitizing them will allow for use in on-site exhibitions as well as an online resource.

Other features of this website include video vignettes and a timeline of these naturalists’ investigations. This resource is in no way complete; however, it focuses on the naturalists associated with the University and includes significant events in US and global history. Rather than highlighting historic naturalists, the video vignettes feature modern researchers from the University as they demonstrate the collection, documentation, and preservation of objects for future generations.

Explore the HSN site here.



Logo for the Institute of Museum and Library Services

This project is a collaboration of the following UofSC organizations and the Charleston Museum and was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Project # MA-30-18-0048-18).

McKissick Museum

Christian Cicimurri
Linda Smith
Giordano Angeletti
Heather Cain
Eric Friendly
Savannah Keating
Jay Loy
Nate Price
Katy Self
Elliott Sloan
Meghan Teumer
Taylor Turbyfill

Digital Collections

Megan Oliver
Alex Trim

Institute of Southern Studies

Matthew Simmons

The Charleston Museum

Matt Gibson
Jennifer McCormick
Jessica Peragine

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