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Home » Publications » Elements of Geology » Chapter 35

historical
 

Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

Written by Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., F.R.S., (1871)

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Chapter XXXV

ON THE DIFFERENT AGES OF THE METAMORPHIC ROCKS.


Difficulty of ascertaining the Age of metamorphic Strata. — Metamorphic Strata of Eocene date in the Alps of Switzerland and Savoy. — Limestone and Shale of Carrara. — Metamorphic Strata of older date than the Silurian and Cambrian Rocks. — Order of Succession in metamorphic Rocks. — Uniformity of mineral Character. — Supposed Azoic Period. — Connection between the Absence of Organic Remains and the Scarcity of calcareous Matter in metamorphic Rocks.

According to the theory adopted in the last chapter, the metamorphic strata have been deposited at one period, and have become crystalline at another. We can rarely hope to define with exactness the date of both these periods, the fossils having been destroyed by Plutonic action, and the mineral characters being the same, whatever the age. Superposition itself is an ambiguous test, especially when we desire to determine the period of crystallisation. Suppose, for example, we are convinced that certain metamorphic strata in the Alps, which are covered by cretaceous beds, are altered lias; this lias may have assumed its crystalline texture in the cretaceous or in some tertiary period, the Eocene for example.

When discussing the ages of the Plutonic rocks, we have seen that examples occur of various primary, secondary, and tertiary deposits converted into metamorphic strata near their contact with granite. There can be no doubt in these cases that strata once composed of mud, sand, and gravel, or of clay, marl, and shelly limestone, have for the distance of several yards, and in some instances several hundred feet, been turned into gneiss, mica-schist, hornblende-schist, chlorite-schist, quartz rock, statuary marble, and the rest. (See the two preceding chapters.) It may be easy to prove the identity of two different parts of the same stratum; one, where the rock has been in contact with a volcanic or Plutonic mass, and has been changed into marble or hornblende-schist, and another not far distant, where the same bed remains unaltered and fossiliferous; but when hydrothermal action, as described in Chapter XXXIII, has operated gradually on a more extensive scale, it may have finally destroyed

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all monuments of the date of its development throughout a whole mountain chain, and all the labour and skill of the most practised observers are required, and may sometimes be at fault. I shall mention one or two examples of alteration on a grand scale, in order to explain to the student the kind of reasoning by which we are led to infer that dense masses of fossiliferous strata have been converted into crystalline rocks.

Eocene Strata rendered metamorphic in the Alps.—In the eastern part of the Alps, some of the Palæozoic strata, as well as the older Mesozoic formations, including the oolitic and cretaceous rocks, are distinctly recognisable. Tertiary deposits also appear in a less elevated position on the flanks of the Eastern Alps; but in the Central or Swiss Alps, the Palæozoic and older Mesozoic formations disappear, and the Cretaceous, Oolitic, Liassic, and at some points even the Eocene strata, graduate insensibly into metamorphic rocks, consisting of granular limestone, talc-schist, talcose-gneiss, micaceous schist, and other varieties.

As an illustration of the partial conversion into gneiss of portions of a highly inclined set of beds, I may cite Sir R. Murchison’s memoir on the structure of the Alps. Slates provincially termed “flysch” (see p. 278), overlying the nummulite limestone of Eocene date, and comprising some arenaceous and some calcareous layers, are seen to alternate several times with bands of granitoid rock, answering in character to gneiss. In this case heat, vapour, or water at a high temperature may have traversed the more permeable beds, and altered them so far as to admit of an internal movement and re-arrangement of the molecules, while the adjoining strata did not give passage to the same heated gases or water, or, if so, remained unchanged because they were composed of less fusible or decomposable materials. Whatever hypothesis we adopt, the phenomena establish beyond a doubt the possibility of the development of the metamorphic structure in a tertiary deposit in planes parallel to those of stratification. The strata appear clearly to have been affected, though in a less intense degree, by that same Plutonic action which has entirely altered and rendered metamorphic so many of the subjacent formations; for in the Alps this action has by no means been confined to the immediate vicinity of granite. Granite, indeed, and other Plutonic rocks, rarely make their appearance at the surface, notwithstanding the deep ravines which lay open to view the internal structure of these mountains. That they exist below at no great depth we can not doubt, for at some points, as in

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the Valorsine, near Mont Blanc, granite and granitic veins are observable, piercing through talcose gneiss, which passes insensibly upward into secondary strata.

It is certainly in the Alps of Switzerland and Savoy, more than in any other district in Europe, that the geologist is prepared to meet with the signs of an intense development of Plutonic action; for here strata thousands of feet thick have been bent, folded, and overturned, and marine secondary formations of a comparatively modern date, such as the Oolitic and Cretaceous, have been upheaved to the height of 12,000, and some Eocene strata to elevations of 10,000 feet above the level of the sea; and even deposits of the Miocene era have been raised 4000 or 5000 feet, so as to rival in height the loftiest mountains in Great Britain. In one of the sections described by M. Studer in the highest of the Bernese Alps, namely in the Roththal, a valley bordering the line of perpetual snow on the northern side of the Jungfrau, there occurs a mass of gneiss 1000 feet thick, and 15,000 feet long, which I examined, not only resting upon, but also again covered by strata containing oolitic fossils. These anomalous appearances may partly be explained by supposing great solid wedges of intrusive gneiss to have been forced in laterally between strata to which I found them to be in many sections unconformable. The superposition, also, of the gneiss to the oolite may, in some cases, be due to a reversal of the original position of the beds in a region where the convulsions have been on so stupendous a scale.

Northern Apennines.—Carrara.—The celebrated marble of Carrara, used in sculpture, was once regarded as a type of primitive limestone. It abounds in the mountains of Massa Carrara, or the “Apuan Alps,” as they have been called, the highest peaks of which are nearly 6000 feet high. Its great antiquity was inferred from its mineral texture, from the absence of fossils, and its passage downward into talc-schist and garnetiferous mica-schist; these rocks again graduating downward into gneiss, which is penetrated, at Forno, by granite veins. But the researches of MM. Savi, Boué, Pareto, Guidoni, De la Beche, Hoffman, and Pilla demonstrated that this marble, once supposed to be formed before the existence of organic beings, is, in fact, an altered limestone of the Oolitic period, and the underlying crystalline schists are secondary sandstones and shales, modified by Plutonic action. In order to establish these conclusions it was first pointed out that the calcareous rocks bordering the Gulf of Spezia, and abounding in Oolitic fossils, assume a texture like that of Carrara marble, in proportion as they are more and more

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invaded by certain trappean and Plutonic rocks, such as diorite, serpentine, and granite, occurring in the same country.

It was then observed that, in places where the secondary formations are unaltered, the uppermost consist of common Apennine limestone with nodules of flint, below which are shales, and at the base of all, argillaceous and siliceous sandstones. In the limestone fossils are frequent, but very rare in the underlying shale and sandstone. Then a gradation was traced laterally from these rocks into another and corresponding series, which is completely metamorphic; for at the top of this we find a white granular marble, wholly devoid of fossils, and almost without stratification, in which there are no nodules of flint, but in its place siliceous matter disseminated through the mass in the form of prisms of quartz. Below this, and in place of the shales, are talc-schists, jasper, and hornstone; and at the bottom, instead of the siliceous and argillaceous sandstones, are quartzite and gneiss.* Had these secondary strata of the Apennines undergone universally as great an amount of transmutation, it would have been impossible to form a conjecture respecting their true age; and then, according to the method of classification adopted by the earlier geologists, they would have ranked as primary rocks. In that case the date of their origin would have been thrown back to an era antecedent to the deposition of the Lower Silurian or Cambrian strata, although in reality they were formed in the Oolitic period, and altered at some subsequent and perhaps much later epoch.

Metamorphic Strata of older date than the Silurian and Cambrian Rocks.—It was remarked (Fig. 617) that as the hypogene rocks, both stratified and unstratified, crystallise originally at a certain depth beneath the surface, they must always, before they are upraised and exposed at the surface, be of considerable antiquity, relatively to a large portion of the fossiliferous and volcanic rocks. They may be forming at all periods; but before any of them can become visible, they must be raised above the level of the sea, and some of the rocks which previously concealed them must have been removed by denudation.

In Canada, as we have seen (p. 491), the Lower Laurentian gneiss, quartzite, and limestone may be regarded as metamorphic, because, among other reasons, organic remains (Eozoon Canadense) have been detected in a part of one of the calcareous masses. The Upper Laurentian or Labrador

* See notices of Savi, Hoffman, and others, referred to by Boué, Bull. de la Soc. Géol. de France, tome v, p. 317 and tome iii, p. 44; also Pilla, cited by Murchison, Quart. Geol. Journ., vol. v, p. 266.

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series lies unconformably upon the Lower, and differs from it chiefly in having as yet yielded no fossils. It consists of gneiss with Labrador-feldspar and feldstones, in all 10,000 feet thick, and both its composition and structure lead us to suppose that, like the Lower Laurentian, it was originally of sedimentary origin and owes its crystalline condition to metamorphic action. The remote date of the period when some of these old Laurentian strata of Canada were converted into gneiss may be inferred from the fact that pebbles of that rock are found in the overlying Huronian formation, which is probably of Cambrian age (p. 490).

The oldest stratified rock of Scotland is the hornblendic gneiss of Lewis, in the Hebrides, and that of the north-west coast of Ross-shire, represented at the base of the section given at Fig. 82. It is the same as that intersected by numerous granite veins which forms the cliffs of Cape Wrath, in Sutherlandshire (see Fig. 613), and is conjectured to be of Laurentian age. Above it, as shown in the section (Fig. 82), lie unconformable beds of a reddish or purple sandstone and conglomerate, nearly horizontal, and between 3000 and 4000 feet thick. In these ancient grits no fossils have been found, but they are supposed to be of Cambrian date, for Sir R. Murchison found Lower Silurian strata resting unconformably upon them. These strata consist of quartzite with annelid burrows already alluded to (p. 112), and limestone in which Mr. Charles Peach was the first to find, in 1854, three or four species of Orthoceras, also the genera Cyrtoceras and Lituites, two species of Murchisonia, a Pleurotomaria, a species of Maclurea, one of Euomphalus, and an Orthis. Several of the species are believed by Mr. Salter to be identical with Lower Silurian fossils of Canada and the United States.

The discovery of the true age of these fossiliferous rocks was one of the most important steps made of late years in the progress of British Geology, for it led to the unexpected conclusion that all the Scotch crystalline strata to the eastward, once called primitive, which overlie the limestone and quartzite in question, are referable to some part of the Silurian series.

These Scotch metamorphic strata are of gneiss, mica-schist, and clay-slate of vast thickness, and having a strike from north-east to south-west almost at right angles to that of the older Laurentian gneiss before mentioned. The newer crystalline series, comprising the crystalline rocks of Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, and Forfarshire, were inferred by Sir R. Murchison to be altered Silurian strata; and his opinion

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has been since confirmed by the observations of three able geologists, Messrs. Ramsay, Harkness, and Geikie. The newest of the series is a clay-slate, on which, along the southern borders of the Grampians, the Lower Old Red, containing Cephalaspis Lyelli, Pterygotus Anglicus, and Parka decipiens, rests unconformably.

Order of Succession in Metamorphic Rocks.—There is no universal and invariable order of superposition in metamorphic rocks, although a particular arrangement may prevail throughout countries of great extent, for the same reason that it is traceable in those sedimentary formations from which crystalline strata are derived. Thus, for example, we have seen that in the Apennines, near Carrara, the descending series, where it is metamorphic, consists of, first, saccharine marble; second, talcose-schist; and third, of quartz-rock and gneiss: where unaltered, of, first, fossiliferous limestone; second, shale; and third, sandstone.

But if we investigate different mountain chains, we find gneiss, mica-schist, hornblende-schist, chlorite-schist, hypogene limestone, and other rocks, succeeding each other, and alternating with each other in every possible order. It is, indeed, more common to meet with some variety of clay-slate forming the uppermost member of a metamorphic series than any other rock; but this fact by no means implies, as some have imagined, that all clay-slates were formed at the close of an imaginary period when the deposition of the crystalline strata gave way to that of ordinary sedimentary deposits. Such clay-slates, in fact, are variable in composition, and sometimes alternate with fossiliferous strata, so that they may be said to belong almost equally to the sedimentary and metamorphic order of rocks. It is probable that, had they been subjected to more intense Plutonic action, they would have been transformed into hornblende-schist, foliated chlorite-schist, scaly talcose-schist, mica-schist, or other more perfectly crystalline rocks, such as are usually associated with gneiss.

Uniformity of Mineral Character in Hypogene Rocks.—It is true, as Humboldt has happily remarked, that when we pass to another hemisphere, we see new forms of animals and plants, and even new constellations in the heavens; but in the rocks we still recognise our old acquaintances—the same granite, the same gneiss, the same micaceous schist, quartz-rock, and the rest. There is certainly a great and striking general resemblance in the principal kinds of hypogene rocks in all countries, however different their ages; but each of them, as we have seen, must be regarded as geological

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families of rocks, and not as definite mineral compounds. They are more uniform in aspect than sedimentary strata, because these last are often composed of fragments varying greatly in form, size, and colour, and contain fossils of different shapes and mineral composition, and acquire a variety of tints from the mixture of various kinds of sediment. The materials of such strata, if they underwent metamorphism, would be subject to chemical laws, simple and uniform in their action, the same in every climate, and wholly undisturbed by mechanical and organic causes. It would, however, be a great error to assume, as some have done, that the hypogene rocks, considered as aggregates of simple minerals, are really more homogeneous in their composition than the several members of the sedimentary series. Not only do the proportional quantities of feldspar, quartz, mica, hornblende, and other minerals, vary in hypogene rocks bearing the same name; but what is still more important, the ingredients, as we have seen, of the same simple mineral are not always constant (see p. 503 and table, p. 499).

Supposed Azoic Period.—The total absence of any trace of fossils has inclined many geologists to attribute the origin of the most ancient strata to an azoic period, or one antecedent to the existence of organic beings. Admitting, they say, the obliteration, in some cases, of fossils by Plutonic action, we might still expect that traces of them would oftener be found in certain ancient systems of slate which can scarcely be said to have assumed a crystalline structure. But in urging this argument it seems to have been forgotten that there are stratified formations of enormous thickness, and of various ages, some of them even of Tertiary date, and which we know were formed after the earth had become the abode of living creatures, which are, nevertheless, in some districts, entirely destitute of all vestiges of organic bodies. In some, the traces of fossils may have been effaced by water and acids, at many successive periods; indeed the removal of the calcareous matter of fossil shells is proved by the fact of such organic remains being often replaced by silex or other minerals, and sometimes by the space once occupied by the fossil being left empty, or only marked by a faint impression.

Those who believed the hypogene rocks to have originated antecedently to the creation of organic beings, imputed the absence of lime, so remarkable in metamorphic strata, to the non-existence of those mollusca and zoophytes by which shells and corals are secreted; but when we ascribe the crystalline formations to Plutonic action, it is natural to inquire whether this action itself may not tend to expel carbonic

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acid and lime from the materials which it reduces to fusion or semi-fusion. Not only carbonate of lime, but also free carbonic acid gas, is given off plentifully from the soil and crevices of rocks in regions of active and spent volcanoes, as near Naples and in Auvergne. By this process, fossil shells or corals may often lose their carbonic acid, and the residual lime may enter into the composition of augite, hornblende, garnet, and other hypogene minerals. Although we can not descend into the subterranean regions where volcanic heat is developed, we can observe in regions of extinct volcanoes, such as Auvergne and Tuscany, hundreds of springs, both cold and thermal, flowing out from granite and other rocks, and having their waters plentifully charged with carbonate of lime.

If all the calcareous matter transferred in the course of ages by these and thousands of other springs from the lower part of the earth’s crust to the atmosphere could be presented to us in a solid form, we should find that its volume was comparable to that of many a chain of hills. Calcareous matter is poured into lakes and the ocean by a thousand springs and rivers; so that part of almost every new calcareous rock chemically precipitated, and of many reefs of shelly and coralline stone, must be derived from mineral matter subtracted by Plutonic agency, and driven up by gas and steam from fused and heated rocks in the bowels of the earth.

The scarcity of limestone in many extensive regions of metamorphic rocks, as in the Eastern and Southern Grampians of Scotland, may have been the result of some action of this kind; and if the limestones of the Lower Laurentian in Canada afford a remarkable exception to the general rule, we must not forget that it is precisely in this most ancient formation that the Eozoon Canadense has been found. The fact that some distinct bands of limestone from 700 to 1500 feet thick occur here, may be connected with the escape from destruction of some few traces of organic life, even in a rock in which metamorphic action has gone so far as to produce serpentine, augite, and other minerals found largely intermixed with the carbonate of lime.

historical
 

Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

Written by Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., F.R.S., (1871)

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