Rocks Tell the Story of the Earth
The Earth is made of rock, from the tallest mountains to the floor of the deepest ocean. Thousands of different types of rocks and minerals have been found on Earth. Most rocks at the Earth’s surface are formed from only eight elements (oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium), but these elements are combined in a number of ways to make rocks that are very different.
Rocks are continually changing. Wind and water wear them down and carry bits of rock away; the tiny particles accumulate in a lake or ocean and harden into rock again. The oldest rock that has ever been found is more than 3.9 billion years old. The Earth itself is at least 4.5 billion years old, but rocks from the beginning of Earth’s history have changed so much from their original form that they have become new kinds of rock. By studying how rocks form and change, scientists have built a solid understanding of the Earth we live on and its long history.
Types of Rocks
Geologists classify rocks in three groups, according to the major Earth processes that formed them. The three rock groups are igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. Anyone who wishes to collect rocks should become familiar with the characteristics of these three rock groups. Knowing how a geologist classifies rocks is important if you want to transform a random group of rock specimens into a true collection
Igneous rocks are formed from melted rock that has cooled and solidified. When rocks are buried deep within the Earth, they melt because of the high pressure and temperature; the molten rock (called magma) can then flow upward or even be erupted from a volcano onto the Earth’s surface. When magma cools slowly, usually at depths of thousands of feet, crystals grow from the molten liquid, and a coarse-grained rock forms. When magma cools rapidly, usually at or near the Earth’s surface, the crystals are extremely small, and a fine-grained rock results. A wide variety of rocks are formed by different cooling rates and different chemical compositions of the original magma. Obsidian (volcanic glass), granite, basalt, and andesite porphyry are four of the many types of igneous rock.
Sedimentary rocks are formed at the surface of the Earth, either in water or on land. They are layered accumulations of sediments-fragments of rocks, minerals, or animal or plant material. Temperatures and pressures are low at the Earth’s surface, and sedimentary rocks show this fact by their appearance and the minerals they contain. Most sedimentary rocks become cemented together by minerals and chemicals or are held together by electrical attraction; some, however, remain loose and unconsolidated. The layers are normally parallel or nearly parallel to the Earth’s surface; if they are at high angles to the surface or are twisted or broken, some kind of Earth movement has occurred since the rock was formed. Sedimentary rocks are forming around us all the time. Sand and gravel on beaches or in river bars look like the sandstone and conglomerate they will become. Compacted and dried mud flats harden into shale. Scuba divers who have seen mud and shells settling on the floors of lagoons find it easy to understand how sedimentary rocks form.
Sometimes sedimentary and igneous rocks are subjected to pressures so intense or heat so high that they are completely changed. They become metamorphic rocks, which form while deeply buried within the Earth’s crust. The process of metamorphism does not melt the rocks, but instead transforms them into denser, more compact rocks. New minerals are created either by rearrangement of mineral components or by reactions with fluids that enter the rocks. Some kinds of metamorphic rocks–granite gneiss and biotite schist are two examples–are strongly banded or foliated. (Foliated means the parallel arrangement of certain mineral grains that gives the rock a striped appearance.) Pressure or temperature can even change previously metamorphosed rocks into new types.
Rock-forming and rock-destroying processes have been active for billions of years. Today, in the Guadalupe Mountains of western Texas, one can stand on limestone, a sedimentary rock, that was a coral reef in a tropical sea about 250 million years ago. In Vermont’s Green Mountains one can see schist, a metamorphic rock, that was once mud in a shallow sea. Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, Calif., which now stands nearly 8,800 feet above sea level, is composed of quartz monzonite, an igneous rock that solidified several thousand feet within the Earth. In a simple rock collection of a few dozen samples, one can capture an enormous sweep of the history of our planet and the processes that formed it.
At Hennopsriver in the Gauteng area you find the remains of an inland sea. This can best be viewed at Sungula.
Starting a Collection
A good rock collection consists of selected, representative, properly labeled specimens. The collection can be as large or as small as its owner wishes. An active collection constantly improves as specimens are added or as poor specimens are replaced by better ones. A rock collection might begin with stones picked up from the ground near your home. These stones may have limited variety and can be replaced later by better specimens. Nevertheless, this first step is helpful in training the eye to see diagnostic features of rocks (features by which rocks can be differentiated). As you become more familiar with collecting methods and with geology, the collection will probably take one of two directions. You may try either to collect as many different types of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks as possible or to collect all the related kinds of rocks from your own particular area.
Many books about geology explain the identification and classification of rocks and describe the underlying geologic principles. Almost any recent general book on geology would help a rock collector. Geologic maps, which are useful guides for collecting, are also excellent identification aids. They show the distribution and extent of particular rock types or groups of rock types. Depending on size and scale, the maps may cover large or small areas. Most have brief descriptions of the rock types. Some are issued as separate publications; others are included in books.
Comparing one’s own specimens with those in a museum collection can help in identifying them. Most large rock collections are well labeled. Small rock collections abound in libraries, schools, public buildings, small museums, and private homes.
Where to Find Rocks
Collections usually differ depending on where the collector is able to search for rocks. The best collecting sites are quarries, road cuts or natural cliffs, and outcrops. Open fields and level country are poor places to find rock exposures. Hills and steep slopes are better sites. Almost any exposure of rock provides some collection opportunities, but fresh, unweathered outcrops or manmade excavations offer the best locations. If possible, visit several exposures of the same rock to be sure a representative sample is selected.
The beginning collector needs two pieces of somewhat specialized equipment-a geologist’s hammer and a hand lens. The hammer is used to break off fresh rock specimens and to trim them to display size. It can be purchased through hardware stores or scientific supply houses. The head of a geologist’s hammer has one blunt hammering end. The other end of the most versatile and widely used style is a pick. Another popular style-the chisel type-has one chisel end; it is used mostly in soft sedimentary rocks and in collecting fossils.
The hand lens, sometimes called a pocket magnifier, is used to identify mineral grains. Hand lenses can be purchased in jewelry stores, optical shops, or scientific supply houses. Six-power to ten-power magnification is best. Optically uncorrected hand lenses are inexpensive and quite satisfactory, but the advanced collector will want an optically corrected lens.
Other pieces of necessary equipment are inexpensive and easy to find: a knapsack to carry specimens, equipment, and food; bags and paper in which to wrap individual specimens; a notebook for keeping field notes until more permanent records can be made; and a pocket knife, helpful in many ways, especially to test the hardness of mineral grains.
On some collecting trips, additional equipment is needed. Sledge hammers can be used to break especially hard ledges of rock. Cold chisels often make it possible to loosen specimens. Dilute hydrochloric acid helps in identifying limestone and dolomite. A long list could be made of such equipment; the collector must decide for each expedition which tools are really worth the weight.
Housing and Enlarging a Collection
The practical problems of cataloging and storing a collection must be considered by every collector. Housing arrangements can be very simple because rocks are durable and do not require special treatment. Shoe boxes and corrugated cardboard boxes are often used. Ordinary egg cartons can be used if the specimens are rather small. Shallow wall cases for rock collections are available commercially.
It is important to have a careful system of permanent labeling so that specimens do not get mixed up. Many people paint a small oblong of white lacquer on a corner of each specimen and paint a black number on the white oblong. The number, rock name, collector’s name, date collected, description of collection site, geologic formation, geologic age, and other pertinent data are entered in a small notebook. If rocks are kept on separate trays, a small card containing some data is usually placed in the tray.
Extra specimens are sometimes used for trading with other collectors. Few people have the opportunity to obtain all varieties of rock types, and exchanging can fill gaps in a collection. Collectors interested in trading are usually located by word of mouth. No nationwide organization of rock collectors exists, though local clubs and individual collectors are found throughout South Africa. It may be necessary to buy some specimens, but good specimens are expensive.
Hints for Rock Collectors
Label specimens as they are collected. Identification can wait until later, but the place where the rocks were found should be recorded at once. Many collections have become mixed up because the collector did not do this.
Trim rocks in the collection to a common size. Specimens about 3 by 4 by 2 inches are large enough to show rock features well. Other display sizes are 2 by 3 by 1 inch, or 3 by 3 by 2 inches.
Ask for permission to collect rocks on private property. The owners will appreciate this courtesy on your part.
Be careful when collecting rocks. Work with another person, if possible, and carry a first aid kit. Wear protective clothing–safety glasses, hard-toed shoes, hard hat, and gloves–when dislodging specimens. Avoid overhanging rock and the edges of steep, natural or quarried walls.
Look for unusual rocks to study in large buildings or in cemeteries. Dimension stone blocks and monument stone are often transported long distances from where they are quarried. Polished stone sometimes looks different from unpolished rock. This provides good identification practice.
Join a mineral club or subscribe to a mineral magazine. They occasionally discuss rocks.
Collecting rocks from each province or country has no scientific significance. The distribution of rocks is a natural phenomenon and is not related to political divisions.
Gemstones are not plentiful. Gemstones do not form “ore” deposits in the normal sense.
Gems, when present at all, tend to be scattered sparsely throughout a large body of rock or to have crystallized as small aggregates or fill veins and small cavities.
Even stream gravel concentrations tend to be small–a few stones in each of several bedrock cracks, potholes, or gravel lenses in a stream bed.
The average grade of the richest diamond kimberlite pipes in Africa is about 1 part diamond in 40 million parts “ore.” Kimberlite, a plutonic igneous rock, ascends from a depth of at least 100 kilometers to form adiatreme(narrow cone-shaped rock body or “pipe”). Moreover, because much diamond is not of gem quality, the average stone in an engagement ring is the product of the removal and processing of 200 to 400 million times its volume of rock.
Gemstones occur in most major geologic environments.
Each environment tends to have a characteristic suite of gem materials, but many kinds of gems occur in more than one environment. Most gemstones are found in igneous rocks and alluvial gravels, but sedimentary and metamorphic rocks may also contain gem materials.
Examples of geologic environments in which gemstones are found:
Pegmatite–a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock body, occurring as dikes (a tabular-shaped body), lenses, or veins in the surrounding rock.
Stream gravels (placers)–deposits of heavier and more durable than average minerals that have been eroded out of the original rock. Often tourmaline, beryl, and many other gem-quality minerals have eroded out of the original rock in which they formed and have moved and been concentrated locally by water in streams.
Metamorphic rocks–rocks that have been altered by great heat, pressure, or both. Garnet, for example, is commonly found as crystals in gneiss and mica schist.
Hardness and specific gravity are two of the major characteristics of gemstones.
Hardness of a gemstone is its resistance to scratching and may be described relative to a standard scale of 10 minerals known as the Mohs scale. F. Mohs, an Austrian mineralogist, developed this scale in 1822.
According to Mohs’ scale, the hardness of:-
- Talc is 1
- Gypsum is 2
- Calcite is 3
- Fluorite is 4
- Apatite is 5
- Feldspar is 6
- Quartz is 7
- Topaz is 8
- Sapphire is 9
- Diamond is 10
Specific gravity is the number of times heavier a gemstone of any volume is than an equal volume of water; in other words, it is the ratio of the density of the gemstone to the density of water.
The 16 mineral gemstone groups listed below are highly prized for their beauty, durability, and rarity: They could be the foundation of a good collection.
Beryl (hardness: 7.5-8 Mohs)
Beryllium aluminum silicate
Specific gravity: 2.63-2.91
Emerald: Intense green or bluish green
Aquamarine: Greenish blue or light blue
Morganite: Pink, purple pink, or peach
Heliodore: Golden yellow to golden green
Red beryl: Raspberry red
Goshenite: Colorless, greenish yellow, yellow green, brownish
Chrysoberyl (hardness: 8.5 Mohs)
Beryllium aluminum oxide
Specific gravity: 3.68-3.78
Chrysoberyl: transparent yellowish green to greenish yellow and pale brown
Alexandrite: red in incandescent light and green in daylight
Cat’s eye: usually yellowish or greenish
Corundum (hardness: 9 Mohs)
Specific gravity: 3.96-4.05
Ruby: Intense red
Diamond (hardness: 10 Mohs)
Specific gravity: 3.51
Colorless to faint yellowish tinge, also variable
Feldspar (hardness: 6-6.5 Mohs)
Two distinctly different alkali alumino silicates: the Plagioclase and the Alkali Feldspar Series
Specific gravity: 2.55-2.76
Labradorite: Colorful, iridescent, also transparent stones in yellow, orange, red, and green
Sunstone: Gold spangles from inclusions of hematite
Peristerite: Blue white iridescence
Alkali Feldspar Group-
Orthoclase: Pale yellow, flesh red
Amazonite: Yellow green to greenish blue
Moonstone: Colorless; also white to yellowish, and reddish to bluish gray
Garnet (hardness: 6.5-7.5 Mohs)
A group of silicate minerals
Specific gravity: 3.5-4.3
Almandine: Orangy red to purplish red
Almandine-spessartine: Reddish orange
Andradite: Yellowish green to orangy yellow to black
Demantoid: Green to yellow green andradite
Topazolite: Yellow to orangy yellow
Grossular: Colorless; also orange, pink, yellow, and brown
Tsavorite: Green to yellowish green
Hessonite: Yellow orange to red
Pyrope: Colorless; also pink to red
Chrome pyrope: Orange red
Pyrope-Almadine: Reddish orange to red purple
Pyrope-Spessartine: Greenish yellow to purple
Malaia: Yellowish to reddish orange to brown
Color-change garnet: Blue green in daylight to purple red in incandescent light
Rhodolite: Purplish red to red purple
Spessartine: Yellowish orange
Uvarovite: Emerald green
Jade (hardness: 6 Mohs)
Calcium magnesium silicate
Specific gravity: 2.9-3.1
White, deep green, creamy brown
Sodium aluminum silicate
Specific gravity: 3.1-3.5
White, leafy and blue green, emerald green, lavender, dark blue green and greenish black, deep emerald-green
Lapis lazuli (hardness: 5-5.5 Mohs)
A rock composed mainly of the mineral lazurite with variable amounts of pyrite (brassy flecks) and white calcite
Specific gravity: 2.7-2.9
Deep blue, azure blue, greenish blue (bluish color with flecks of white and gold)
Opal (hardness: 5.5-6.5 Mohs)
Specific gravity: 1.98-2.25
White opal: Opaque, porcelain-like white material; colors resemble flashes or speckles
Black opal: Flashes and speckles appear against black background
Water opal: A transparent, colorless opal is the background for brilliant flashes of color
Fire opal: Reddish or orange opal
Peridot [Olivine] (hardness: 7 Mohs)
Magnesium iron silicate
Specific gravity: 3.22-3.45
Olive to lime green
Quartz (hardness: 7 Mohs)
Silicon dioxide or silica
Specific gravity: 2.65
Coarsely crystalline varieties of silica-
Rock crystal: Colorless
Citrine: Yellow to amber
Smoky quartz or cairngorm: smoky gray to brown
Rose quartz: Translucent pink
Green quartz or praziolite: Green
Cryptocrystalline varieties of silica-
Chalcedony and Jasper (variable)
Agate: Bull’s eye agate, Iris or fire agate, Onyx, Sardonyx. Bloodstone or heliotrope. Carnelian. Chrysoprase. Moss agate. Plasma. Prase. Sard. Jasper.
Spinel (hardness: 8 Mohs)
Magnesium aluminum oxide
Specific gravity: 3.58-4.06
Balas ruby: Red
Almandine spinel: Purple red
Sapphire spinel and ghanospinel: Blue
Topaz (hardness: 8 Mohs)
Aluminum silicate fluoride hydroxide
Specific gravity: 3.5-3.6
Wine yellow, pale blue, green, violet, or red
Tourmaline (hardness: 7-7.5 Mohs)
Complex aluminum borosilicate
(Elbaite, Dravite, Uvite)
Specific gravity: 3.03-3.25
Brazilian emerald: Green
Indicolite: Dark blue
Rubellite: Pink to red
Turquoise (hardness: 5-6 Mohs)
Hydrous copper aluminum phosphate
Specific gravity: 2.6-2.8
Sky blue; greenish blue
Zircon (hardness: 7.5 Mohs)
Specific gravity: 4.6-4.7
Matura diamond: Colorless
Hyacinth: Yellow, orange, red, brown
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerdus Bronn of the Silver Hills Mineral Gallery and originally appeared as part of a Silver Hills Mineral Gallery Gemstone Club newsletter in June 2001. Find out more about the Silver Hills Mineral Gallery at www.mineralgallery.co.za
© Gerdus Bronn and the Silver Hills Mineral Gallery, 2001