Friday, January 30, 2009

What's In A Name

As someone interested in names and what they mean, I am regularly intrigued by the terms used in the building stone trade.  Often the names give an insight to place of origin.  For example, we have the world famous Carrara marble, nationally known Georgia Cherokee Marble, or locally recognized Tenino Sandstone (from Tenino, Washington).  Stone names can also convey color, such as Coral Red Granite, Black Ice Marble, and Blue Pearl, or texture, Roxbury Puddingtone, Birdseye Marble, and Tapestry Granite.

Names, however, can also mislead.  Minnesota’s Rainbow granite is a 3.5-billion-year old gneiss, which happens to be the oldest commonly used building stone in the world. (Ironically, one correctly labeled class of granites, called rapakivi, gives too much information as rapakivi is the Finnish word for crumbly.)  The other commonly mislabeled rock is limestone, often called marble, even ones such as the fossil-rich Treuchtlingen marble from Germany. 

 3.5 bya Morton gneiss aka Rainbow granite

The more fascinating stones come with a story.  The island of Chios has produced portasanta, a stone often compared to roast beef in color and texture; its name translates to holy door, a reference to its use as door jambs at St. Peter’s.  From France comes another reddish rock, Cervelatte Marble, a named derived from is similarity to sausage made in Switzerland and Germany.  Cervelatte comes from the Latin cerebrum, in reference to the brains formerly used in the sausage.


One of the world’s most famous marbles is that used in the Parthenon in Athens. Roman stone cutters knew of the white marble as Marmo Greco Fetido (fetid Greek marble) and Marmo cipolla (onion marble), because “when sawn it emits a fetid odour,” wrote Mary Winearls Porter in What Rome Was Built With: A Description of the Stones Employed in Ancient Times for its Building and Decoration.  This is not an unusual phenomenon; organic remains in the rock can disintegrate and form a sulfurous gas, which gets trapped in the crystal lattice.  Breaking the stone releases the gas.  Cutting to the chase, the British labeled their odoriferous rock Stink Stone.

The Brits also have many ancient words sprinkled into their stone names. Kentish Rag utilizes a word first used in 1272 to refer to any “sedimentary rock readily broken into thick slabs as paving” or so says the OED.  The commonly used freestone also appeared at this time, compared with sandstone, which was not used until 1668. And then there’s clunch, which sounds like a stomach ailment, but actually refers to hard layers of the chalk marl in Cambridgeshire.

My favorite name, however, comes from Brazil.  I don’t know what it means but simply like the sound of Uba Tuba.  What’s your favorite stone name?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Post Rock Country

Last blog with a connection to Mr. Obama.  Driving on I-70 across the western part of Kansas you cannot help but notice a sign welcoming you to Post Rock Country.  After wondering if you have entered some strange enclave of Celine Dion partisans, you will start noticing that fence posts along the interstate are made from stone and not from wood.  Turns out that in a land of few trees and many cattle, the best way to build a fence was to use the local limestone, a yellow-tan rock easily quarried from just below the surface.  The layer, known locally as Fencepost limestone, comes out of the ground soft and easily worked, but hardens soon after exposure. 

Post Rock Stone Fenceposts (From Kansas Geological Survey)

“Had it not been for stone fence posts, prosperity might have been a long time coming to much of north-central Kansas,” wrote Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, in Land of the Post Rock: Its Origins, History, and People.  The authors report that stone fence posts can be found in an area that covers about 200 square miles, from Hays to Salina and then extending northeast to the Nebraska border and southwest toward Dodge City.  No one knows when the first post appeared but most references point to the early 1870s, as immigrants began to move into the state.

Homesteaders put up hundreds of thousands of the posts, each of which weighed between 250 and 450 pounds.  A 160-acre-property required 360 posts and 40,000 feet of wire.  (In the 1880s barbed wire started to become popular, which helped make wire-and-post fencing much more feasible and cheaper.)  To cut the stone posts, which were generally eight to twelve inches thick—depending upon the layer quarried—masons used a plug and feather technique. 

First step was to drill a row of holes about six to eight inches apart.  Next, the masson dropped into each hole two metal, half-round shims, each bent at the top to prevent them from slipping into the hole.  Between the shims, known as feathers, he placed a metal wedge, the plug.  To separate the rock, he pounded the plugs in succession until the rock split.

Plug and feather stone splitting (Photo from Kansas Geological Survey)

Fencepost limestone forms the top layer of the Greenhorn Limestone, a rock unit deposited 95 million years ago.  During this time, a sea ran up the middle of North America.  The Greenhorn includes chalky, fossil-rich, and more limey layers.  Fossils include ammonites, clams, and petrified wood, some of which appear in the fence posts. 

The post rock era ended in the 1920s, as farmers and ranchers began to use wood and steel, transported by railroads and cars.  Over the following decades,  the posts’ popularity lead to periodical revivals and one can still find many of the beautiful and unusual posts, a testimony in stone to the ingenuity of plains dwellers.

A good gigapan photo of the fenceposts has been posted by Ron Schott. 



Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Urchin-Based Education

With the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, another milestone has been passed: the first president to graduate from high school in Hawaii.  To honor that rather trivial tidbit, I will consider a short-lived facet of the Aloha State’s educational past, which of course has a connection to stone.  Prior to the arrival of missionaries in 1820, native Hawaiians did not have a written language.  Soon after landing, missionary Hiram Bingham (grandfather of the Hiram Bingham who rediscovered Machu Pichu) and others began to develop an alphabet in order to teach Hawaiians the Bible.

One key aspect of teaching involved writing out the language, which was done on small school slates that the missionaries had brought with them.  Such teaching implements, often consisting of a small slab of slate surrounded by a wooden border, had been been used for hundreds of years in Europe and were starting to become more widespread in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Since slate was not what one would call abundant in the Hawaiian islands and throughout the South Pacific, other missionaries report that students used flakes of rocks and dyed them purple with plants juices “to give them the appearance of English slates.” 

Educators faced one more problem: how to write on the slate.  Chalk was not available so again the missionaries relied on local resources.  John Williams a missionary to the Cook Islands wrote in his memoir:

“The next desideratum was a pencil, and for this they (the students) went into the sea, and procured a number of the echinus, or sea-egg, which is armed with twenty or thirty spines. These they burnt slightly to render them soft that they might not scratch; and with these flakes of stone for a slate, and the spine of the sea-egg for a pencil, they wrote exceedingly well."

For those of you not familiar with the sea-egg, we know it better as a sea urchin.  Specifically the species is Heterocentrotus mamillatus, the slate-pencil sea urchin. Its spines can be up to 10 cm long and weigh over 5 grams. They are made of calcite. Like the spines of all sea urchins, they are used for gathering and manipulating food, defense, movement, and for holding tight in cracks.  When broken or removed, the spines regenerate, which takes many months.  In modern times, these spines show up in wind chimes.  Historically, native peoples used the spines as files to make bone and shell fishhooks, though one researcher reported that in Micronesia some people used two spines like chopsticks to pluck up pubic hairs. He did not elaborate and nor can I.

Slate Pencil Sea Urchin

The introduction of school slates and the use of sea urchin spines, along with other printed forms ultimately led to Hawaii having wide-spread literacy during the 19th century.  Unfortunately, an overthrow of the Hawaii monarchy led to the banning of Hawaiian language in schools.  The ban wasn’t lifted until 1986. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Our Nation's Building Stones

So you’re heading out to Washington D.C. to attend the inauguration and wondering what to do in the down time between the Bruce Springsteen concert, primping for the Inaugural Ball, and chatting up your local congressional representative on the importance of  a good geology education.  Well, like that self-professed geogeek, Mr. Obama, (okay I think he just called himself a geek but I am guessing that he secretly likes rocks), one thing to do is to explore our nation’s capital and check out the building stone.  

In a city of stately buildings, stone has long been the premium material.  One of the first was quarried about 40 miles south of Washington along Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Virginia.  Popular between 1790 and 1840, the Lower Cretaceous sandstone is rich in quartz sand and pebbles.  It was also known as ‘Virginia freestone,’ and was used for the White House, Treasury Building, the Old Patent Office, and the older parts of the Capitol.  Unfortunately, the Aquia Creek rock suffered from many flaws and weathered poorly, so that it soon had to be replaced or painted over.  

Gateposts (From USGS Pub. Building Stones of Our Nation's Capital

You can still find it indoors at the Old Patent Office and in rooms next to the Capitol rotunda.  Outdoor examples include the Old Patent Office, the boundary stones of D.C., and three gateposts and one gatehouse, formerly at the Capitol.  They can now be found at 15th St. NW and Constitution Ave. NW. 

The most popular building material, and one that has weathered far better, is the Salem Limestone.  As I have noted before, it is a 330-million-year old rock quarried in and around Bloomington, Indiana.  You cannot travel very far in Washington without running into a building made either all or partly of Salem.  These include the Botanic Gardens, the GSA Building, US Holocaust Museum, Interior, Jefferson Memorial (calcite from the Salem and marble have weathered and made stalactites and stalagmites in the basement), Lincoln Memorial, National Theater, and scores of more.  

Department of Interior (From USGS Pub. Building Stones of Our Nation's Capital

You can also find a brownstone, from quarries located along the Potomac River, near Seneca, Maryland, 20 miles northwest of Washington.  Like the brownstones of Connecticut, the Seneca sandstone formed in massive rift basins that opened 200 million years ago during the breakup of Pangaea.  The Smithsonian Castle completed in 1855, uses this brownstone, which has weathered to dark red from its original lilac gray.  I recently learned from Through the Sandglass of a great Mark Twain quote about said stone.  In a letter published in the March 7, 1868 Territorial Enterprise, he wrote of the “poor, decrepit, bald-headed, played-out, antediluvian Old Red Sandstone formation which they call the Smithsonian Institute.” 

Smithsonian Castle (From USGS Pub. Building Stones of Our Nation's Capital

I will end my short tour with the Washington Monument, the tallest masonry structure in the world.  The lower 152 feet use Texas marble, quarried in Maryland.  Construction on this section ran from 1845 to 1854.  Not until 11 years after the Civil War did building again begin again, now with marble from Lee, Massachusetts.  Only four layers were laid; this marble was too expensive.  Builders returned again to Maryland quarries but this time they got stone from Cockeysville, north of Baltimore. 

If you want to see more or learn more about stone of Washington, D.C., you can consult two excellent publications.  The USGS has put their Building Stones of Our Nation’s Capital on line. 

The second is the Building Stones and Geomorphology of Washington, D.C., written by Jim O’Connor, the late geologist for the District of Columia.  Enthusiastic about making geology accessible to everyone, he wrote and taught extensively about the local geology of the capitol. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Building Stone Books

I am not alone in my passion for building stone. Today, I wanted to explore a few of the other books about building stone. This is not close to a complete list but some that I have referred to over the years. And it does not include any material on Washington, D.C., which I will write about later this week for those of you headed to the inauguration on January 20.

The list is in no particular order. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

A Geologic Walking Tour of Building Stones of Downtown Baltimore – Available both on line and as downloadable PDF file.

Stone Landmarks: Flagstaff’s Geology and Historic Building Stones by Marie D. Jackson – A beautifully designed, well-written tour of Flagstaff.  Includes a walking tour and wider explorations of the area. You can download an order form at the link.

In Limestone Country by Scott Russell Sanders – A literary exploration of the men and geology of the building stone region around Bloomington, Indiana.  Sanders’ writing is clear, passionate, and compelling.

Albuquerque downtown from a geologic point of view – I mentioned this book in November but felt it needed to be in this list.

Guide to Stones Used for Houses of Worship in Northeastern Ohio Cleveland Ohio, by Joseph Hannibal, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Published by the Sacred Landmarks Partnership of Northeast Ohio.  Dr. Hannibal has done extensive research on the building stones around Cleveland and provides geologic and cultural information on the many churches of the northeastern Ohio.

Building stones of Pennsylvania’s capital area  by Alan Geyer – This doesn’t seem to be in print any more but is availabe through libraries.  It is publication EG5 in the Pennysylvania Geological Survey’s Environmental Geology series.

Geology along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue – A nice walking tour in Chicago with good photos and information. Particularly note the section of the Chicago Tribune Tower with its wonderful carvings of Salem Limestone.

A gallery of architectural geology – Oriented toward Chicago but also with photos of a few buildings outside of the Windy City.

Dimension Stone in Victoria, B.C. – Described as a city guide and walking tour of this wonderful little city in Canada. Available as a 12mb PDF.

Building Stone and Historic Structures in Downtown, Toronto – Written by C.R. Fouts, E.B. Freeman, K.M. Kemp, C. Marmont, and D.G. Minnes – A field trip guide prepared for a 1991 meeting in Toronto.

The Stones of Rome – Next time you venture to Rome, check out this page, full of much information. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

Breaking Away: The Building Stone Movie

Prompted by Silver Fox and inspired by Geology News, this post focuses on one of my favorite geology movies, Breaking Away.  The film takes place in Bloomington in the late 1970s and centers on four recent high school graduates: Dave, Moocher, Cyril, and Mike.  Ostensibly about the relationship between stone mill workers, or Cutters, and college kids, Breaking Away is filled with the angst and self-doubt sewn into young men who cannot follow their father’s footsteps.  “They’re gonna keep calling us “Cutters.”  To them it’s just a dirty word.  To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be,” says Mike, the character played by a young Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away. 

With no work in the building stone industry, the guys have nothing better to do than loaf around, complain about the advantages of college kids, and swim in the abandoned quarries.  Those quarries are all in the Salem Limestone, a 330-million-year old rock unit that is the most commonly used building stone in the country.  The Salem formed in a quiet sea, which covered what we now call the Midwest and is most analogous to the Bahamas where limestone is now forming. It is a fossiliferous layer rich in crinoid stems, bryozoans, brachiopods, and forams.

Joe Palooka in Oolitic, Indiana

Out of the great beds of white rock came the stone climbed by King Kong (Empire State Building), bombed by terrorists (The Pentagon), and walked through by hundreds of thousands of immigrants (Ellis Island).  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the stone to use for grand buildings everywhere, as well as for tomb stones, statues, and many other more modest architectural features.  If you are interested in reading more about the Salem, I recommend Scott Sanders' excellent In Limestone Country

Unfortunately, you cannot get to the quarry where the guys swam in the movie.  It is blocked by a fence and “No Trespassing” signs.  You can, however, see the hole that the Empire State Building came from.  It is near a small cemetery just north of Oolitic, Indiana.  You can also drive through the Salem-rich Indiana University campus in Bloomington, where much of Breaking Away was filmed.

The hole where the Empire State Building was quarried.

Breaking Away is a near perfect movie, at least if you want a good view of a small part of the building stone world.  One extended scene is shot in a limestone mill and features massive cutting tools called gang saws.  When the guys go swimming, you can get a feel for the size of the quarries.  The dialogue between Dave and his father is hysterical.  And Dave, the star, rides a bike, which leads to the final, uplifting moments of the movie, a bike race between our four heroes and the snotty, snooty college boys.  What more could a geology-loving, bike-riding geek want? 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Politics of Building Stone: Seattle

Twenty years ago today a building stone brouhaha erupted in Seattle.  On that snowy Friday, local newspapers reported that Metro, which managed King County’s sewage treatment and public transportation, would have to pay for, but not use, a half million dollars worth of granite that it had purchased for a new bus tunnel through downtown Seattle.  The reason for the rejection was that King County (Seattle is the county seat) had a policy that it could not use or purchase any goods “manufactured or fabricated” in South Africa because of apartheid.

The conflagration began when Eddie Rye of the Black Contractors Coalition notified Metro about its planned use of a green granite quarried in South Africa.  At the time, the stone, known in the trade as Verde Fontaine, sat in Italy, where it had been shipped for cutting and polishing.  Metro Council executive Alan Gibbs responded that using the stone would be “an affront to the community.”  Officials added that Rye’s notification was the first time Metro had heard of the granite’s origin and that none of the South African had been shipped to Seattle.  Turns out that neither statement was true and that a second South African granite had also been purchased. 

 Travertine and Verde Fontaine

Quarried near Bitterfontein, about 200 miles north of Cape Town, the pine green Verde Fontaine solidified underground over one billion years ago.  The green coloration comes from the mineral chlorite, which forms from the alteration of iron- and magnesium-rich minerals within the rock.  The granite is part of a suite known as Spektakel and were emplaced into supracrustal rock units (metasedimentary and metavolcanic rocks) that most likely exceed two billion years in age. 

After Rye blew the whistle, officials within Metro described how some had known about the origin of the stone but that they thought that so little was to be used that it wouldn’t be a problem.  They also noted that use of the rock technically wasn’t illegal because it was only quarried in South Africa but cut and finished in Italy. King County Council Chairman Ron Sims, a member of the Metro Council, responded ''It was a morally repugnant decision. Somebody should have to account for that. This was no longer a half-million-dollar 'error.' It was a conscious decision to defy public sentiment.'' 

Accusations continued over the next month ultimately leading to the resignation of Alan Gibbs in late February. ''The buck stops with me,'' Gibbs said at a news conference where he read a formal letter of resignation. ''The events of the last few weeks surrounding the issue of South African granite have been an embarrassment to the agency … This episode needs to be put to rest so the agency can move ahead with the important work before us.''  Two weeks after Gibbs’ resignation, an internal review of Metro concluded that Gibbs had not misled the public.  On September 15, 1990, the bus tunnels under Seattle opened, with walls covered in less polemical rock.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Building Stones of Great Edifices: Stonehenge

This will be the first of what I hope to be periodic postings about the building stones of famous edifices, such as the Great Pyramids, Machu Pichu, and the Great Wall of China.  Suggestions would be welcome. 

Some of the world’s oldest building stones made it into a fine story in this month’s issue of Earth.  Written by English geologist Brian S. Johns and Lionel E. Jackson, Jr., a Quaternary geologist from British Columbia, the article offers a thought provoking and believable account of the travels of the enigmatic rocks used at Stonehenge.  In doing so, they answer one of the great questions posed by anyone who has visited the Salisbury Plain, “How the hell did they do it?” 

From wikipedia

As Johns and Jackson note, this question has led to some dubious answers.  The Celts, Vikings, Phoenicians, Druids, and Romans have all had their day in the spotlight, though the building of Stonehenge, around 4,500 years ago, predates each of these peoples.  Nor were space aliens involved, though that would be a very handy way to explain the many mysteries.  Johns and Jackson don’t provide an answer to who but instead focus on the origin of the stones.  

Two primary types of building stone make up the majority of the monoliths.  The outer ring consists of a 60-million-year old rock known as sarsen sandstone.  (Sarsen is a regional term applied to the boulders found scattered across south central England.)  About 50 sarsen stones occur, either as vertical slabs or horizontal lintels, and comprise Stonehenge’s most famous features, the Pi-shaped trilithons.  The largest sarsens weigh an estimated 40 tons, or about equal in weight to 48 Smartcars.  

The smaller and less abundant bluestones raise more questions.  Made primarily of diabase, but also rhyolite and additional volcanic material, the stones’s origin has been traced to the Preseli Hills of western Wales, more than 125 miles to the west.  At least eight different rock types associated with Stonehenge have been found across seven miles of hills in this region of Wales.  Early researcher Herbert Thomas, who promoted the “human transport” theory for the origin of the bluestones, hypothesized that Stonehenge’s builders sought out these stones because of their magical and medicinal properties. 

Source area for bluestones: From Brian Johns' web site

Johns and Jackson favor a glacial transport model for the bluestones.  They describe how converging ice sheets from Ireland and Wales funneled erratics from Wales in a “trail leading straight to Stonehenge.”  As evidence of such a conveyor belt-like feat, they report on glaciers in Canada, which ferried erratics in a narrow band over 350 miles south.  In England, this phenomenon provided Neolithic Britons with a ready source of stone for their great structure, no matter why they built it.  And that is the great mystery that not even geology can solve.