Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stories in Stone: The Book

Normally I don't write much about myself but I have a reason to right now. The advanced reader's copy of my book, Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology, arrived yesterday.  Stories in Stone weaves together natural and cultural history to explore the untold life of building stone.  Each chapter focuses on a particular type of rock and describes my search to learn more about the stone, the particular building or building style that exemplifies its use, and the people involved in construction. Along the way I interviewed geologists, explored quarries, and consulted with preservationists and historians in order to give readers greater insight into these structures and stone they are made from. 
A somewhat goofy looking guy and his book
This is the first time a publisher of mine has produced such an edition, which is sent out to potential reviewers. Seeing the book has been very satisfying since this project began three and a half years ago when I first sent a book proposal to my agent. She and I spent many months fashioning the more formal proposal that Walker and Company accepted. I finished the initial manuscript about a year ago and after much editing, copy editing, and proof reading, it is now nigh unto its finished form, which has a publication date of June 23. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Building Stones of Great Edifices: Great Pyramid

Foraminifera, or forams, are one of the more well known group of fossils.  Most, such as the ones in the Salem Limestone, are wee little critters but one genus, Nummulites, is notorious for the great size of the species.  Nummulites are also famous because they are the dominant component in the limestone used at the Great Pyramids.  That stone formed 40 million years ago and is part of series of limey rocks found in Egypt.

 A handful of Nummulites (from Lorraine Cassaza's web page)

These Nummulites have long fascinated visitors to the pyramids.  According to many writers, the historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) was one of the first to comment on them. He supposedly gave the fossils their name, based on their coin-like shape.  Nummulus is Latin for coin.  But if you read through Herodotus’ Histories he makes no use of the term Nummulus and only refers generically to shells.  (One Herodotus expert I contacted wrote: “Herodotus would not have used the term 'nummulites' because it is not a term which existed in his time.”) 

A handful of Nummulites (from Lorraine Cassaza's web page)

Several hundred years after Herodotus wrote his Histories, another historian, Strabo, provided additional thoughts on the shells.  In Book 17 of his Geographica, he wrote of chips “that are like lentils in both form and size…They say that what was left of the food of the workmen has petrified; and this is not improbable.”  In Europe, where Nummulites also appear, the ideas for the fossils’ origins were equally dubious.  Botanist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) referred to an old legend from Transylvania.  The fossils were “pieces of money turned into stone by King Ladislaus, in order to prevent his soldiers from stopping to collect them just when they were putting the Tartars to flight!"  

Such fanciful theories soon gave way to a more scientific understanding but in 1912 a new idea about Nummulites arose.  In that year, invertebrate paleontologist Randolph Kirkpatrick self-published his The Nummulosphere: an account of the Organic Origin of so-called Igneous Rocks and Abyssal Red Clays.  It proposed that Nummulites were responsible for the formation of all rocks, whether igneous, extraterrestrial, or sedimentary. In a follow up to the book, he wrote “The book was, I believe, regarded by some as a symptom of mental derangement on the part of the author.”  He didn’t disagree and added that the earlier book lacked evidence, which he would now possessed.

 (From Wikipedia)

According to researcher Lorraine Casazza, Nummulites are some of the largest single-celled organisms ever.  They were able to reach their great size by growing complex shells, which leads to a large surface area relative to volume.  She writes that the most accepted reason for gigantism is that algae live inside the foram and are able to photosynthesize, which facilitates rapid shell secretion.  Her research focuses on whether this hypothesis is correct.  Judging from the long term interest in Nummulites perhaps they are the most curious aspect of the pyramids.  

Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidential Stone: Whitest and Prettiest

Although Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was last week, we honor him today, as will I, by looking at the building stone of the Lincoln Memorial.  In January 1913, a federal commission approved architect Henry Bacon’s plan for the monument. In contrast with the  common practice of using a steel infrastructure, Bacon proposed white marble walls, columns, and floors. His preferred stone was the Yule marble from Colorado.  

Lincoln Memorial (From Wikipedia)

First described geologically in 1874, the Yule quarry had only opened in 1904 and few easterners had seen it.  Bacon had visited it in 1912 on a trip west and was impressed both by its beauty and by the large blocks the quarry produced.  One long-time supporter called the Yule the “whitest, prettiest, and all things considered, the best marble.” 

The Yule marble was originally deposited as a fine-grained, limey mud in an open shallow sea 345 million years ago when water covered western Canada and most of the United States.  Geologists call this rock the Leadville Limestone in Colorado.  An intrusion of magma 32 million years ago generated the heat necessary to locally metamorphose the Leadville into marble.

The quarry is located about 30 miles west of Aspen, Colorado, at 9,300 feet above sea level.  It is completely underground.  Workers took the stone out of the side of a mountain through portals and lowered them down to a train,which carried the blocks another 3.5 miles to a mill.  Final cutting and shaping required the largest mill in the world, as each of the 38 columns consisted of  25-ton blocks.

Yule quarry (From Wikipedia)

The contractor completed the shell (a nifty Flash program showing construction) of the monument in October 1917.  World War I prevented a dedication from occurring until Memorial Day, 1922.  Coincidentally, this was the same year that the Yule quarry started back in business after shutting down in 1917; in 1919, it had sold to a junk dealer at a sheriff’s sale.  Still popular, the quarry provided a 56-ton block for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1931, but then closed again in 1941. One year earlier a major crack had appeared in the massive block. 

Tomb of Unknowns (From Wikipedia)
The quarries remained closed until 1990 and limped along closing again in 1998. Yule marble, however, seems to not fade away easily.  New owners reopened the quarry in 1999. They have continued to struggle but have a new project; they are now looking to replace the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a new block of marble. 

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tuscon Gem/Mineral: Tents of Trilobites

If ammonites rule in Tucson, then trilobites run a close second. Again, you can buy them by the bag, as jewelry, in slabs, on plates, and even one at a time. At the lowest end, you spend as little as a two bucks, for the hundreds and hundreds of less-than-an-inch-long trilobites from Morocco. For big spenders, there are the one-of-kind crustaceans that will cost several thousand dollars, including a pea-sized one for $700. And, of course, nearly every seller is willing to make you a special deal.
A seven foot wide panel

As usual you get what you pay for, noted one high end dealer, who disdained the cheap trilobites from Morocco. Some of these spectacular trilobites seem almost too perfect to be real. The specimens have heavy ornamentation with spines and tails so fragile that they look as if they would break if you touch them. And in many cases they did break. The guy preparing the fossil simply collected them and glued them back in place, or he may also have made a new appendage with resin.

Did these two really die together?

Some of my favorites are where various species are cemented together to make it look like all lived in harmony. If you are interested, there are several good web sites on how to detect fakes. A nice, non-commercial one is from But if you don’t care and just want a nice looking trilobite Tucson is the place to come.

Mom and the kids?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tucson Gem/Mineral: Acres of Ammonites

Judging from the fossils that I have seen at the Tucson Gem and Mineral show, ammonites once ruled the world. I have only seen one small section of the displays but ammonites are by far the most abundant group of fossils, numbering in the thousands. You can buy them individually, by the bag, and by the the pound. They range in size from less than an inch to four feet in diameter.
A gaggle of ammonites

They come from places as diverse as Morocco, Russia, Columbia, and Madagascar. Most are whole. Some are split in two, revealing mineralized chambers. Many have been polished. Others are pyritzed. At one display, in a hotel room, the ammonites have been mounted elaborately with wee ones glued to bigger ones and split with whole. I also saw one massive ammonite-choked chunk of rock from Morocco that had been drilled out to create a wine rack.

A rafter nifty specimen from Canada

I was lucky to see the massive four foot diameter specimens. They had sold to an undisclosed buyer from Austin, Texas. He had paid $9,000 in cash for two of the giants, both of which had been cut in half. According to the guys getting ready to box and ship the ammonites, one was going to the buyer’s home and one to a museum.

A boy and a very, very big ammonite

My only disappointment was in how little information was listed with the fossils. A handful had the scientific name, age, and locality, but most had nothing but price. Still the show of ammonites is impressive.
A table of ammonites from Madagascar

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Best Building Stone Site on the Web

By far the most interesting site on the web for building stone is Peggy and Pat Perazzo’s Stone Quarries and Beyond.  Clearly a labor of love, the site is packed full of photographs, scans of articles, details about quarrying, and state by state lists of buildings and their stone—basically everything one could want on building stone history. 

From Stone Quarries and Beyond

Of the two, Peggy is the collector and organizer and Pat is the web master.  Peggy’s interest in stone started in a graveyard.  In the late 1990s, as part of a class she was taking on local history at Los Medanos community college, in Pittsburg, California, Peggy decided to survey and photograph stones in local cemeteries.  She wondered where the stones came from and discovered that such information was not easy to find.  When she did locate a point of origin she found that much of the marble, limestone, and granite wasn’t quarried nearby.

Some stone arrived from other areas of California but tons came from Vermont and Italy.  Finished cemetery stones (minus such important info as name or dates) are called blanks and could be ordered through places such as Vermont Marble Co., but also Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Wards.  Finding who sent the rock, however, didn’t always help.  For example, Vermont Marble had quarries as far away as Alaska. 

From Stone Quarries and Beyond

From cemetery stones, she expanded out to bridges, buildings, and other structures and then attempted to match the stone with its origin quarry.  As her piles of data grew, she decided to establish a web site.  “I already was maintaining a genealogy/history web site for the Yolo County CAGen Web Project for which Pat was the web master,” says Peggy.  He agreed again to help.  “It’s a joke between us now that he thought he could get it done in two or three weeks!”  The web site went on line in 2001 and the Perazzos add content practically daily. They report that they had over 2,000,000 hits in 2008.

Peggy’s favorite part of putting together the web site is researching the state by state listings.  “It's like I'm touring the state in person and meeting the people,” she says.  Each state has its own personality.  “Researching coastal states is very interesting because of the sea transportation and quarrying along the coast; but when you go inland, you find other kinds of quarrying and people.”  

Her state sections are the site’s most useful and interesting.  Each one lists geology resources, research resources, quarries, quarry links, and background history.  In addition, Peggy has put together a list of structures and monuments that use that state’s stone.  It is an astounding amount of information, particularly the accumulation, copying, and posting of historical articles and pictures.

“My biggest surprise is learning how really important and publicly valued the quarry industry was to our country in the 1800s and early in the 1900s, although our quarry industry is very "young" compared to the industry in other countries, Peggy says.  “Many times people see these "holes" in the ground as eyesores; but if you read the old magazine articles, the stone industry was well respected, well-known as producers and employers, and valued in the past.”  Fortunately for many, Peggy and Pat are helping to make sure those stories will stay alive.