SUMMERVILLE, S.C. - Riley Gracely and his family were looking around the piles of dirt and gravel at Palmetto Fossil Excursions in Summerville when he saw something that looked like a tooth.
The 8-year-old Lebanon, Pennsylvania, boy started digging in the soil, clay and gravel and pulled out a huge fossilized tooth from the long-extinct angustiden shark species, that was 22 million to 28 million years old.
"He got lucky," Riley’s dad Justin Gracely said in a phone call Monday.
Sky Basak, who owns Palmetto Fossil with her husband Josh, called it a "once in a lifetime find."
The tooth measured 4.75 inches — about the size of Riley’s hand.
The Gracely family was on their annual vacation to Myrtle Beach and made the 2.5-hour trip south to Summerville to go to Palmetto Fossil, a 100-acre pit rich with prehistoric material including all manner — and parts — of sea creatures.
South Carolina has many such locations, buried deep in the earth along the coastal plain, where ocean and rivers ebbed and flowed for millions of years.
Gracely, 40, said he has been visiting Myrtle Beach since he was 5 and he and his mother, a microbiologist, scoured the sand for shark’s teeth.
Two years ago, when Palmetto had just opened, Gracely saw something on Instagram about it and made the trek. This summer was their third visit.
Last year, older son Collin, 10, found a 4-inch megalodon tooth, a species that came after the angustiden and the largest fish that ever lived, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The largest ones were three times the size of the biggest sharks that exist today.
The Gracelys were searching in an area where trucks were dumping material from property where the landowner was building a lake.
Basak said she hunts for specimens every day, 12 hours a day, and she and her husband have found a treasure trove in the new material. They intend to donate all of it to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston, where they often go to just sit and look at the whales and dinosaurs on display.
"Simply speaking, this is some of the richest fossil layer we have ever seen. The colors on the fossils are also amazing, which is caused by the sediment in which they fossilized," according to Palmetto Fossil’s Facebook page.
They have found a walrus, parts of baleen whales, beluga whales, giant speartooth dolphin, all millions and millions of years old.
Basak and her husband started the business in 2020 as a "cool part time gig," she said. Within four months it was much more than that. They were hiring staff and now have 11 employees during the summer.
Basak said interest was immediate.
"It’s a cool feeling knowing you’ve got something that old," she said.
They are leasing the land on Sand Hill Road in Dorchester and are looking for a place to settle with enough ancient deposits to carry them through two or three generations.
Their goal is to start a research facility to better understand South Carolina’s rich geologic history.
Riley Gracely, meanwhile, is keeping his find in a glass display box. He’s shown it to all his friends.
Someone mentioned to his dad that perhaps they would want to donate it for research or display.
"I think we’ll let the little guy keep it for a while," Justin Gracely said.