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Lyell's "The Student's Elements of Geology"

Chapter 1: On the Different Classes of Rocks 

Introduction: The Student's Elements of Geology

Chapter 1: On the Different Classes of Rocks 

Chapter 2: Aqueous Rocks

Chapter 3: Fossils in Strata 

Chapter 4: Consolidation of Strata and Petrifaction

Chapter 5: Strata Above the Sea

Chapter 6: Denudation

Geology defined. — Successive Formation of the Earth’s Crust. — Classification of Rocks according to their Origin and Age. — Aqueous Rocks. — Their Stratification and imbedded Fossils. — Volcanic Rocks, with and without Cones and Craters. — Plutonic Rocks, and their Relation to the Volcanic. — Metamorphic Rocks, and their probable Origin. — The term Primitive, why erroneously applied to the Crystalline Formations. — Leading Division of the Work.

Of what materials is the earth composed, and in what manner are these materials arranged? These are the first inquiries with which Geology is occupied, a science which derives its name from the Greek ge, the earth, and logos, a discourse. Previously to experience we might have imagined that investigations of this kind would relate exclusively to the mineral kingdom, and to the various rocks, soils, and metals, which occur upon the surface of the earth, or at various depths beneath it. But, in pursuing such researches, we soon find ourselves led on to consider the successive changes which have taken place in the former state of the earth’s surface and interior, and the causes which have given rise to these changes; and, what is still more singular and unexpected, we soon become engaged in researches into the history of the animate creation, or of the various tribes of animals and plants which have, at different periods of the past, inhabited the globe.

All are aware that the solid parts of the earth consist of distinct substances, such as clay, chalk, sand, limestone, coal, slate, granite, and the like; but previously to observation it is commonly imagined that all these had remained from the first in the state in which we now see them—that they were created in their present form, and in their present position. The geologist soon comes to a different conclusion, discovering proofs that the external parts of the earth were not all produced in the beginning of things in the state in which we now behold them, nor in an instant of time. On the contrary, he can show that they have acquired their actual configuration and condition gradually, under a great variety of circumstances, and at successive periods, during each of which distinct races of living beings have flourished on the land and in the waters, the remains of these creatures still lying buried in the crust of the earth.

By the “earth’s crust,” is meant that small portion of the exterior of our planet which is accessible to human observation. It comprises not merely all of which the structure is laid open in mountain precipices, or in cliffs overhanging a river or the sea, or whatever the miner may reveal in artificial excavations; but the whole of that outer covering of the planet on which we are enabled to reason by observations made at or near the surface. These reasonings may extend to a depth of several miles, perhaps ten miles; and even then it may be said, that such a thickness is no more than 1/400 part of the distance from the surface to the centre. The remark is just: but although the dimensions of such a crust are, in truth, insignificant when compared to the entire globe, yet they are vast, and of magnificent extent in relation to man, and to the organic beings which people our globe. Referring to this standard of magnitude, the geologist may admire the ample limits of his domain, and admit, at the same time, that not only the exterior of the planet, but the entire earth, is but an atom in the midst of the countless worlds surveyed by the astronomer.

The materials of this crust are not thrown together confusedly; but distinct mineral masses, called rocks, are found to occupy definite spaces, and to exhibit a certain order of arrangement. The term rock is applied indifferently by geologists to all these substances, whether they be soft or stony, for clay and sand are included in the term, and some have even brought peat under this denomination. Our old writers endeavoured to avoid offering such violence to our language, by speaking of the component materials of the earth as consisting of rocks and soils. But there is often so insensible a passage from a soft and incoherent state to that of stone, that geologists of all countries have found it indispensable to have one technical term to include both, and in this sense we find roche applied in French, rocca in Italian, and felsart in German. The beginner, however, must constantly bear in mind that the term rock by no means implies that a mineral mass is in an indurated or stony condition.

The most natural and convenient mode of classifying the various rocks which compose the earth’s crust, is to refer, in the first place, to their origin, and in the second to their relative age. I shall therefore begin by endeavouring briefly to explain to the student how all rocks may be divided into four great classes by reference to their different origin, or, in other words, by reference to the different circumstances and causes by which they have been produced.

The first two divisions, which will at once be understood as natural, are the aqueous and volcanic, or the products of watery and those of igneous action at or near the surface.

Aqueous Rocks.—The aqueous rocks, sometimes called the sedimentary, or fossiliferous, cover a larger part of the earth’s surface than any others. They consist chiefly of mechanical deposits (pebbles, sand, and mud), but are partly of chemical and some of them of organic origin, especially the limestones. These rocks are stratified, or divided into distinct layers, or strata. The term stratum means simply a bed, or any thing spread out or strewed over a given surface; and we infer that these strata have been generally spread out by the action of water, from what we daily see taking place near the mouths of rivers, or on the land during temporary inundations. For, whenever a running stream charged with mud or sand, has its velocity checked, as when it enters a lake or sea, or overflows a plain, the sediment, previously held in suspension by the motion of the water, sinks, by its own gravity to the bottom. In this manner layers of mud and sand are thrown down one upon another.

If we drain a lake which has been fed by a small stream, we frequently find at the bottom a series of deposits, disposed with considerable regularity, one above the other; the uppermost, perhaps, may be a stratum of peat, next below a more dense and solid variety of the same material; still lower a bed of shell-marl, alternating with peat or sand, and then other beds of marl, divided by layers of clay. Now, if a second pit be sunk through the same continuous lacustrine formation at some distance from the first, nearly the same series of beds is commonly met with, yet with slight variations; some, for example, of the layers of sand, clay, or marl, may be wanting, one or more of them having thinned out and given place to others, or sometimes one of the masses first examined is observed to increase in thickness to the exclusion of other beds.

The term formation, which I have used in the above explanation, expresses in geology any assemblage of rocks which have some character in common, whether of origin, age, or composition. Thus we speak of stratified and unstratified, fresh-water and marine, aqueous and volcanic, ancient and modern, metalliferous and non-metalliferous formations.

In the estuaries of large rivers, such as the Ganges and the Mississippi, we may observe, at low water, phenomena analogous to those of the drained lakes above mentioned, but on a grander scale, and extending over areas several hundred miles in length and breadth. When the periodical inundations subside, the river hollows out a channel to the depth of many yards through horizontal beds of clay and sand, the ends of which are seen exposed in perpendicular cliffs. These beds vary in their mineral composition, or colour, or in the fineness or coarseness of their particles, and some of them are occasionally characterised by containing drift-wood. At the junction of the river and the sea, especially in lagoons nearly separated by sand-bars from the ocean, deposits are often formed in which brackish and salt-water shells are included.

In Egypt, where the Nile is always adding to its delta by filling up part of the Mediterranean with mud, the newly deposited sediment is stratified, the thin layer thrown down in one season differing slightly in colour from that of a previous year, and being separable from it, as has been observed in excavations at Cairo and other places.1

When beds of sand, clay, and marl, containing shells and vegetable matter, are found arranged in a similar manner in the interior of the earth, we ascribe to them a similar origin; and the more we examine their characters in minute detail, the more exact do we find the resemblance. Thus, for example, at various heights and depths in the earth, and often far from seas, lakes, and rivers, we meet with layers of rounded pebbles composed of flint, limestone, granite, or other rocks, resembling the shingles of a sea-beach or the gravel in a torrent’s bed. Such layers of pebbles frequently alternate with others formed of sand or fine sediment, just as we may see in the channel of a river descending from hills bordering a coast, where the current sweeps down at one season coarse sand and gravel, while at another, when the waters are low and less rapid, fine mud and sand alone are carried seaward.2

If a stratified arrangement, and the rounded form of pebbles, are alone sufficient to lead us to the conclusion that certain rocks originated under water, this opinion is farther confirmed by the distinct and independent evidence of fossils, so abundantly included in the earth’s crust. By a fossil is meant any body, or the traces of the existence of any body, whether animal or vegetable, which has been buried in the earth by natural causes. Now the remains of animals, especially of aquatic species, are found almost everywhere imbedded in stratified rocks, and sometimes, in the case of limestone, they are in such abundance as to constitute the entire mass of the rock itself. Shells and corals are the most frequent, and with them are often associated the bones and teeth of fishes, fragments of wood, impressions of leaves, and other organic substances. Fossil shells, of forms such as now abound in the sea, are met with far inland, both near the surface, and at great depths below it. They occur at all heights above the level of the ocean, having been observed at elevations of more than 8000 feet in the Pyrenees, 10,000 in the Alps, 13,000 in the Andes, and above 18,000 feet in the Himalaya.3

These shells belong mostly to marine testacea, but in some places exclusively to forms characteristic of lakes and rivers. Hence it is concluded that some ancient strata were deposited at the bottom of the sea, and others in lakes and estuaries.

We have now pointed out one great class of rocks, which, however they may vary in mineral composition, colour, grain, or other characters, external and internal, may nevertheless be grouped together as having a common origin. They have all been formed under water, in the same manner as modern accumulations of sand, mud, shingle, banks of shells, reefs of coral, and the like, and are all characterised by stratification or fossils, or by both.[ Lyell notes that the vast majority of the earth's rocks, even on the highest mountains, were formed under water. This, of course would accord well with the concept of the Biblical flood. Certain aspects of interpretation brought in later attempt to discredit this possibility. PRS]

Volcanic Rocks.—The division of rocks which we may next consider are the volcanic, or those which have been produced at or near the surface whether in ancient or modern times, not by water, but by the action of fire or subterranean heat. These rocks are for the most part unstratified, and are devoid of fossils. They are more partially distributed than aqueous formations, at least in respect to horizontal extension. Among those parts of Europe where they exhibit characters not to be mistaken, I may mention not only Sicily and the country round Naples, but Auvergne, Velay, and Vivarais, now the departments of Puy de Dome, Haute Loire, and Ardęche, towards the centre and south of France, in which are several hundred conical hills having the forms of modern volcanoes, with craters more or less perfect on many of their summits. These cones are composed moreover of lava, sand, and ashes, similar to those of active volcanoes. Streams of lava may sometimes be traced from the cones into the adjoining valleys, where they have choked up the ancient channels of rivers with solid rock, in the same manner as some modern flows of lava in Iceland have been known to do, the rivers either flowing beneath or cutting out a narrow passage on one side of the lava. Although none of these French volcanoes have been in activity within the period of history or tradition, their forms are often very perfect. Some, however, have been compared to the mere skeletons of volcanoes, the rains and torrents having washed their sides, and removed all the loose sand and scorić, leaving only the harder and more solid materials. By this erosion, and by earthquakes, their internal structure has occasionally been laid open to view, in fissures and ravines; and we then behold not only many successive beds and masses of porous lava, sand, and scorić, but also perpendicular walls, or dikes, as they are called, of volcanic rock, which have burst through the other materials. Such dikes are also observed in the structure of Vesuvius, Etna, and other active volcanoes. They have been formed by the pouring of melted matter, whether from above or below, into open fissures, and they commonly traverse deposits of volcanic tuff, a substance produced by the showering down from the air, or incumbent waters, of sand and cinders, first shot up from the interior of the earth by the explosions of volcanic gases.

Besides the parts of France above alluded to, there are other countries, as the north of Spain, the south of Sicily, the Tuscan territory of Italy, the lower Rhenish provinces, and Hungary, where spent volcanoes may be seen, still preserving in many cases a conical form, and having craters and often lava-streams connected with them.

There are also other rocks in England, Scotland, Ireland, and almost every country in Europe, which we infer to be of igneous origin, although they do not form hills with cones and craters. Thus, for example, we feel assured that the rock of Staffa, and that of the Giant’s Causeway, called basalt, is volcanic, because it agrees in its columnar structure and mineral composition with streams of lava which we know to have flowed from the craters of volcanoes. We find also similar basaltic and other igneous rocks associated with beds of tuff in various parts of the British Isles, and forming dikes, such as have been spoken of; and some of the strata through which these dikes cut are occasionally altered at the point of contact, as if they had been exposed to the intense heat of melted matter.

The absence of cones and craters, and long narrow streams of superficial lava, in England and many other countries, is principally to be attributed to the eruptions having been submarine, just as a considerable proportion of volcanoes in our own times burst out beneath the sea. But this question must be enlarged upon more fully in the chapters on Igneous Rocks, in which it will also be shown, that as different sedimentary formations, containing each their characteristic fossils, have been deposited at successive periods, so also volcanic sand and scorić have been thrown out, and lavas have flowed over the land or bed of the sea, at many different epochs, or have been injected into fissures; so that the igneous as well as the aqueous rocks may be classed as a chronological series of monuments, throwing light on a succession of events in the history of the earth.

Plutonic Rocks (Granite, etc).—We have now pointed out the existence of two distinct orders of mineral masses, the aqueous and the volcanic: but if we examine a large portion of a continent, especially if it contain within it a lofty mountain range, we rarely fail to discover two other classes of rocks, very distinct from either of those above alluded to, and which we can neither assimilate to deposits such as are now accumulated in lakes or seas, nor to those generated by ordinary volcanic action. The members of both these divisions of rocks agree in being highly crystalline and destitute of organic remains. The rocks of one division have been called Plutonic, comprehending all the granites and certain porphyries, which are nearly allied in some of their characters to volcanic formations. The members of the other class are stratified and often slaty, and have been called by some the crystalline schists, in which group are included gneiss, micaceous-schist (or mica-slate), hornblende-schist, statuary marble, the finer kinds of roofing slate, and other rocks afterwards to be described.

As it is admitted that nothing strictly analogous to these crystalline productions can now be seen in the progress of formation on the earth’s surface, it will naturally be asked, on what data we can find a place for them in a system of classification founded on the origin of rocks. I can not, in reply to this question, pretend to give the student, in a few words, an intelligible account of the long chain of facts and reasonings from which geologists have been led to infer the nature of the rocks in question. The result, however, may be briefly stated. All the various kinds of granites which constitute the Plutonic family are supposed to be of igneous or aqueo-igneous origin, and to have been formed under great pressure, at a considerable depth in the earth, or sometimes, perhaps, under a certain weight of incumbent ocean. Like the lava of volcanoes, they have been melted, and afterwards cooled and crystallised, but with extreme slowness, and under conditions very different from those of bodies cooling in the open air. Hence they differ from the volcanic rocks, not only by their more crystalline texture, but also by the absence of tuffs and breccias, which are the products of eruptions at the earth’s surface, or beneath seas of inconsiderable depth. They differ also by the absence of pores or cellular cavities, to which the expansion of the entangled gases gives rise in ordinary lava.

Metamorphic, or Stratified Crystalline Rocks.—The fourth and last great division of rocks are the crystalline strata and slates, or schists, called gneiss, mica-schist, clay-slate, chlorite-schist, marble, and the like, the origin of which is more doubtful than that of the other three classes. They contain no pebbles, or sand, or scorić, or angular pieces of imbedded stone, and no traces of organic bodies, and they are often as crystalline as granite, yet are divided into beds, corresponding in form and arrangement to those of sedimentary formations, and are therefore said to be stratified. The beds sometimes consist of an alternation of substances varying in colour, composition, and thickness, precisely as we see in stratified fossiliferous deposits. According to the Huttonian theory, which I adopt as the most probable, and which will be afterwards more fully explained, the materials of these strata were originally deposited from water in the usual form of sediment, but they were subsequently so altered by subterranean heat, as to assume a new texture. It is demonstrable, in some cases at least, that such a complete conversion has actually taken place, fossiliferous strata having exchanged an earthy for a highly crystalline texture for a distance of a quarter of a mile from their contact with granite. In some cases, dark limestones, replete with shells and corals, have been turned into white statuary marble; and hard clays, containing vegetable or other remains, into slates called mica-schist or hornblende-schist, every vestige of the organic bodies having been obliterated.

Although we are in a great degree ignorant of the precise nature of the influence exerted in these cases, yet it evidently bears some analogy to that which volcanic heat and gases are known to produce; and the action may be conveniently called Plutonic, because it appears to have been developed in those regions where Plutonic rocks are generated, and under similar circumstances of pressure and depth in the earth. Intensely heated water or steam permeating stratified masses under great pressure have no doubt played their part in producing the crystalline texture and other changes, and it is clear that the transforming influence has often pervaded entire mountain masses of strata.

In accordance with the hypothesis above alluded to, I proposed in the first edition of the Principles of Geology (1833) the term “Metamorphic” for the altered strata, a term derived from meta, trans, and morphe, forma.

Hence there are four great classes of rocks considered in reference to their origin—the aqueous, the volcanic, the Plutonic, and the metamorphic. In the course of this work it will be shown that portions of each of these four distinct classes have originated at many successive periods. They have all been produced contemporaneously, and may even now be in the progress of formation on a large scale. It is not true, as was formerly supposed, that all granites, together with the crystalline or metamorphic strata, were first formed, and therefore entitled to be called “primitive,” and that the aqueous and volcanic rocks were afterwards superimposed, and should, therefore, rank as secondary in the order of time. This idea was adopted in the infancy of the science, when all formations, whether stratified or unstratified, earthy or crystalline, with or without fossils, were alike regarded as of aqueous origin. At that period it was naturally argued that the foundation must be older than the superstructure; but it was afterwards discovered that this opinion was by no means in every instance a legitimate deduction from facts; for the inferior parts of the earth’s crust have often been modified, and even entirely changed, by the influence of volcanic and other subterranean causes, while superimposed formations have not been in the slightest degree altered. In other words, the destroying and renovating processes have given birth to new rocks below, while those above, whether crystalline or fossiliferous, have remained in their ancient condition. Even in cities, such as Venice and Amsterdam, it cannot be laid down as universally true that the upper parts of each edifice, whether of brick or marble, are more modern than the foundations on which they rest, for these often consist of wooden piles, which may have rotted and been replaced one after the other, without the least injury to the buildings above; meanwhile, these may have required scarcely any repair, and may have been constantly inhabited. So it is with the habitable surface of our globe, in its relation to large masses of rock immediately below; it may continue the same for ages, while subjacent materials, at a great depth, are passing from a solid to a fluid state, and then reconsolidating, so as to acquire a new texture.

As all the crystalline rocks may, in some respects, be viewed as belonging to one great family, whether they be stratified or unstratified, metamorphic or Plutonic, it will often be convenient to speak of them by one common name. It being now ascertained, as above stated, that they are of very different ages, sometimes newer than the strata called secondary, the terms primitive and primary which were formerly used for the whole must be abandoned, as they would imply a manifest contradiction. It is indispensable, therefore, to find a new name, one which must not be of chronological import, and must express, on the one hand, some peculiarity equally attributable to granite and gneiss (to the Plutonic as well as the alteredunaltered sedimentary strata. I proposed in the Principles of Geology (first edition, vol. iii) the term “hypogene” for this purpose, derived from upo, under, and ginomai, to be, or to be born; a word implying the theory that granite, gneiss, and the other crystalline formations are alike netherformed rocks, or rocks which have not assumed their present form and structure at the surface. They occupy the lowest place in the order of superposition. Even in regions such as the Alps, where some masses of granite and gneiss can be shown to be of comparatively modern date, belonging, for example, to the period hereafter to be described as tertiary, they are still underlying rocks. They never repose on the volcanic or trappean formations, nor on strata containing organic remains. They are hypogene, as “being under” all the rest.

From what has now been said, the reader will understand that each of the four great classes of rocks may be studied under two distinct points of view; first, they may be studied simply as mineral masses deriving their origin from particular causes, and having a certain composition, form, and position in the earth’s crust, or other characters both positive and negative, such as the presence or absence of organic remains. In the second place, the rocks of each class may be viewed as a grand chronological series of monuments, attesting a succession of events in the former history of the globe and its living inhabitants.

I shall accordingly proceed to treat of each family of rocks; first, in reference to those characters which are not chronological, and then in particular relation to the several periods when they were formed.


1 See Principles of Geology, by the Author, Index, “Nile,” “Rivers,” etc.

2 See p. 44, Fig. 7.

3 Col. R. J. Strachey found oolitic fossils 18,400 feet high in the Himalaya.