Ancient turtle shell unearthed

SUMMERVILLE -- Along the high banks of the Eagle Creek drainage ditch in Summerville, bikers and runners traveled by, oblivious to the amazing find just below the swift moving water.

A white plastic bag and a handwritten index card enclosed in a recloseable baggy reading, "Do Not Touch," marked the spot where amateur fossil hunter Paul Bailey made the discovery of a lifetime -- the intact shell of a 30-million-year-old leatherback turtle.

Thursday, a team of experts and volunteers, led by Jim Knight, director of collections at the State Museum, worked to excavate the fossil and remove it for further study.

This ancient shell, about 5 feet by 4 feet, is smaller than modern leatherback turtles. They are the biggest of all turtles, reaching lengths of more than 8 feet and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. These turtles have been known to nest on S.C. beaches.

Three weeks ago Bailey, co-founder of the Low Country Fossil Club, was in the bone-dry canal. He probed several inches below the surface with a metal-tipped stick for anything unusual.

Bailey unearthed what he thought was part of a turtle shell. He quickly realized it was much bigger.

"It takes more perseverance and a little sweat to find anything these days," Bailey said.