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Home » Publications » Elements of Geology » Chapter 9

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Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

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

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Chapter IX

CLASSIFICATION OF TERTIARY FORMATIONS.


Order of Succession of Sedimentary Formations. — Frequent Unconformability of Strata. — Imperfection of the Record. — Defectiveness of the Monuments greater in Proportion to their Antiquity. — Reasons for studying the newer Groups first. — Nomenclature of Formations. — Detached Tertiary Formations scattered over Europe. — Value of the Shell-bearing Mollusca in Classification. — Classification of Tertiary Strata. — Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene Terms explained.

By reference to the tables given at the end of the last chapter the reader will see that when the fossiliferous rocks are arranged chronologically, we have first to consider the Post-tertiary and then the Tertiary or Cainozoic formations, and afterwards to pass on to those of older date.

Fig. 86: Order of Superposition of Deposits

Order of Superposition.—The diagram (Fig. 86) will show the order of superposition of these deposits, assuming them all to be visible in one continuous section. In nature, as before hinted (p. 107), we have never an opportunity of seeing the whole of them so displayed in a single region; first, because sedimentary deposition is confined, during any one geological period, to limited areas; and secondly, because strata, after they have been formed, are liable to be utterly annihilated over wide areas by denudation. But wherever certain members of the series are present, they overlie one another in the order indicated in the diagram, though not always in the exact manner there represented, because some of them repose occasionally in unconformable stratification on others. This mode of superposition has been already explained (p. 94, p. 111), where I pointed out that the discordance which implies a considerable lapse of time between two

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formations in juxtaposition is almost invariably accompanied by a great dissimilarity in the species of organic remains.

Frequent Unconformability of Strata.—Where the widest gaps appear in the sequence of the fossil forms, as between the Permian and Triassic rocks, or between the Cretaceous and Eocene, examples of such unconformability are very frequent. But they are also met with in some part or other of the world at the junction of almost all the other principal formations, and sometimes the subordinate divisions of any one of the leading groups may be found lying unconformably on another subordinate member of the same—the Upper, for example, on the Lower Silurian, or the superior division of the Old Red Sandstone on a lower member of the same, and so forth. Instances of such irregularities in the mode of succession of the strata are the more intelligible the more we extend our survey of the fossiliferous formations, for we are continually bringing to light deposits of intermediate date, which have to be intercalated between those previously known, and which reveal to us a long series of events, of which antecedently to such discoveries we had no knowledge.

But while unconformability invariably bears testimony to a lapse of unrepresented time, the conformability of two sets of strata in contact by no means implies that the newer formation immediately succeeded the older one. It simply implies that the ancient rocks were subjected to no movements of such a nature as to tilt, bend, or break them before the more modern formation was superimposed. It does not show that the earth’s crust was motionless in the region in question, for there may have been a gradual sinking or rising, extending uniformly over a large surface, and yet, during such movement, the stratified rocks may have retained their original horizontality of position. There may have been a conversion of a wide area from sea into land and from land into sea, and during these changes of level some strata may have been slowly removed by aqueous action, and after this new strata may be superimposed, differing perhaps in date by thousands of years or centuries, and yet resting conformably on the older set. There may even be a blending of the materials constituting the older deposit with those of the newer, so as to give rise to a passage in the mineral character of the one rock into the other as if there had been no break or interruption in the depositing process.

Imperfection of the Record.—Although by the frequent discovery of new sets of intermediate strata the transition from one type of organic remains to another is becoming less and

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less abrupt, yet the entire series of records appears to the geologists now living far more fragmentary and defective than it seemed to their predecessors half a century ago. The earlier inquirers, as often as they encountered a break in the regular sequence of formations, connected it theoretically with a sudden and violent catastrophe, which had put an end to the regular course of events that had been going on uninterruptedly for ages, annihilating at the same time all or nearly all the organic beings which had previously flourished, after which, order being re-established, a new series of events was initiated. In proportion as our faith in these views grows weaker, and the phenomena of the organic or inorganic world presented to us by geology seem explicable on the hypothesis of gradual and insensible changes, varied only by occasional convulsions, on a scale comparable to that witnessed in historical times; and in proportion as it is thought possible that former fluctuations in the organic world may be due to the indefinite modifiability of species without the necessity of assuming new and independent acts of creation, the number and magnitude of the gaps which still remain, or the extreme imperfection of the record, become more and more striking, and what we possess of the ancient annals of the earth’s history appears as nothing when contrasted with that which has been lost.

When we examine a large area such as Europe, the average as well as the extreme height above the sea attained by the older formations is usually found to exceed that reached by the more modern ones, the primary or palaeozoic rising higher than the secondary, and these in their turn than the tertiary; while in reference to the three divisions of the tertiary, the lowest or Eocene group attains a higher summit-level than the Miocene, and these again a greater height than the Pliocene formations. Lastly, the post-tertiary deposits, such, at least, as are of marine origin, are most commonly restricted to much more moderate elevations above the sea-level than the tertiary strata.

It is also observed that strata, in proportion as they are of newer date, bear the nearest resemblance in mineral character to those which are now in the progress of formation in seas or lakes, the newest of all consisting principally of soft mud or loose sand, in some places full of shells, corals, or other organic bodies, animal or vegetable, in others wholly devoid of such remains. The farther we recede from the present time, and the higher the antiquity of the formations which we examine, the greater are the changes which the sedimentary deposits have undergone. Time, as I have

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explained in Chapters V, VI, and VII, has multiplied the effects of condensation by pressure and cementation, and the modification produced by heat, fracture, contortion, upheaval, and denudation. The organic remains also have sometimes been obliterated entirely, or the mineral matter of which they were composed has been removed and replaced by other substances.

Why newer Groups should be studied first.—We likewise observe that the older the rocks the more widely do their organic remains depart from the types of the living creation. First, we find in the newer tertiary rocks a few species which no longer exist, mixed with many living ones, and then, as we go farther back, many genera and families at present unknown make their appearance, until we come to strata in which the fossil relics of existing species are nowhere to be detected, except a few of the lowest forms of invertebrate, while some orders of animals and plants wholly unrepresented in the living world begin to be conspicuous.

When we study, therefore, the geological records of the earth and its inhabitants, we find, as in human history, the defectiveness and obscurity of the monuments always increasing the remoter the era to which we refer, and the difficulty of determining the true chronological relations of rocks is more and more enhanced, especially when we are comparing those which were formed simultaneously in very distant regions of the globe. Hence we advance with securer steps when we begin with the study of the geological records of later times, proceeding from the newer to the older, or from the more to the less known.

In thus inverting what might at first seem to be the more natural order of historical research, we must bear in mind that each of the periods above enumerated, even the shortest, such as the Post-tertiary, or the Pliocene, Miocene, or Eocene, embrace a succession of events of vast extent, so that to give a satisfactory account of what we already know of any one of them would require many volumes. When, therefore, we approach one of the newer groups before endeavouring to decipher the monuments of an older one, it is like endeavouring to master the history of our own country and that of some contemporary nations, before we enter upon Roman History, or like investigating the annals of Ancient Italy and Greece before we approach those of Egypt and Assyria.

Nomenclature.—The origin of the terms Primary and Secondary, and the synonymous terms Palaeozoic, and Mesozoic, were explained in Chapter VIII, p. 123.

The Tertiary or Cainozoic strata (see p. 123) were so called

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because they were all posterior in date to the Secondary series, of which last the Chalk of Cretaceous, No. 9, Fig. 86, constitutes the newest group. The whole of them were at first confounded with the superficial alluviums of Europe; and it was long before their real extent and thickness, and the various ages to which they belong, were fully recognised. They were observed to occur in patches, some of fresh-water, others of marine origin, their geographical area being usually small as compared to the secondary formations, and their position often suggesting the idea of their having been deposited in different bays, lakes, estuaries, or inland seas, after a large portion of the space now occupied by Europe had already been converted into dry land.

The first deposits of this class, of which the characters were accurately determined, were those occurring in the neighbourhood of Paris, described in 1810 by MM. Cuvier and Brongniart. They were ascertained to consist of successive sets of strata, some of marine, others of fresh-water origin, lying one upon the other. The fossil shells and corals were perceived to be almost all of unknown species, and to have in general a near affinity to those now inhabiting warmer seas. The bones and skeletons of land animals, some of them of large size, and belonging to more than forty distinct species, were examined by Cuvier, and declared by him not to agree specifically, nor most of them even generically, with any hitherto observed in the living creation.

Strata were soon afterwards brought to light in the vicinity of London, and in Hampshire, which, although dissimilar in mineral composition, were justly inferred by Mr. T. Webster to be of the same age as those of Paris, because the greater number of the fossil shells were specifically identical. For the same reason, rocks found on the Gironde, in the South of France, and at certain points in the North of Italy, were suspected to be of contemporaneous origin.

Another important discovery was soon afterwards made by Brocchi in Italy, who investigated the argillaceous and sandy deposits, replete with shells, which form a low range of hills, flanking the Apennines on both sides, from the plains of the Po to Calabria. These lower hills were called by him the Subapennines, and were formed of strata chiefly marine, and newer than those of Paris and London.

Another tertiary group occurring in the neighbourhood of Bordeaux and Dax, in the South of France, was examined by M. de Basterot in 1825, who described and figured several hundred species of shells, which differed for the most part both from the Parisian series and those of the Subapennine hills.

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It was soon, therefore, suspected that this fauna might belong to a period intermediate between that of the Parisian and Subapennine strata, and it was not long before the evidence of superposition was brought to bear in support of this opinion; for other strata, contemporaneous with those of Bordeaux, were observed in one district (the Valley of the Loire), to overlie the Parisian formation, and in another (in Piedmont) to underlie the Subapennine beds. The first example of these was pointed out in 1829 by M. Desnoyers, who ascertained that the sand and marl of marine origin called faluns, near Tours, in the basin of the Loire, full of sea-shells and corals, rested upon a lacustrine formation, which constitutes the uppermost subdivision of the Parisian group, extending continuously throughout a great table-land intervening between the basin of the Seine and that of the Loire. The other example occurs in Italy, where strata containing many fossils similar to those of Bordeaux were observed by Bonelli and others in the environs of Turin, subjacent to strata belonging to the Subapennine group of Brocchi.

Value of Testacean Fossils in Classification.—It will be observed that in the foregoing allusions to organic remains, the testacea or the shell-bearing mollusca are selected as the most useful and convenient class for the purposes of general classification. In the first place, they are more universally distributed through strata of every age than any other organic bodies. Those families of fossils which are of rare and casual occurrence are absolutely of no avail in establishing a chronological arrangement. If we have plants alone in one group of strata and the bones of mammalia in another, we can draw no conclusion respecting the affinity or discordance of the organic beings of the two epochs compared; and the same may be said if we have plants and vertebrated animals in one series and only shells in another. Although corals are more abundant, in a fossil state, than plants, reptiles, or fish, they are still rare when contrasted with shells, because they are more dependent for their well-being on the constant clearness of the water, and are, therefore, less likely to be included in rocks which endure in consequence of their thickness and the copiousness of sediment which prevailed when they originated. The utility of the testacea is, moreover, enhanced by the circumstance that some forms are proper to the sea, others to the land, and others to fresh water. Rivers scarcely ever fail to carry down into their deltas some land-shells, together with species which are at once fluviatile and lacustrine. By this means we learn what terrestrial, fresh-water, and marine

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species coexisted at particular eras of the past: and having thus identified strata formed in seas with others which originated contemporaneously in inland lakes, we are then enabled to advance a step farther, and show that certain quadrupeds or aquatic plants, found fossil in lacustrine formations, inhabited the globe at the same period when certain fish, reptiles, and zoophytes lived in the ocean.

Among other characters of the molluscous animals, which render them extremely valuable in settling chronological questions in geology, may be mentioned, first, the wide geographical range of many species; and, secondly, what is probably a consequence of the former, the great duration of species in this class, for they appear to have surpassed in longevity the greater number of the mammalia and fish. Had each species inhabited a very limited space, it could never, when imbedded in strata, have enabled the geologist to identify deposits at distant points; or had they each lasted but for a brief period, they could have thrown no light on the connection of rocks placed far from each other in the chronological, or, as it is often termed, vertical series.

Classification of Tertiary Strata.—Many authors have divided the European Tertiary strata into three groups—lower, middle, and upper; the lower comprising the oldest formations of Paris and London before mentioned; the middle those of Bordeaux and Touraine; and the upper all those newer than the middle group.

In the first edition of the Principles of Geology, I divided the whole of the Tertiary formations into four groups, characterised by the percentage of recent shells which they contained. The lower tertiary strata of London and Paris were thought by M. Deshayes to contain only 3½ per cent of recent species, and were termed Eocene. The middle tertiary of the Loire and Gironde had, according to the specific determinations of the same conchologist, 17 per cent, and formed the Miocene division. The Subapennine beds contained 35 to 50 per cent, and were termed Older Pliocene, while still more recent beds in Sicily, which had from 90 to 95 per cent of species identical with those now living, were called Newer Pliocene. The first of the above terms, Eocene, is derived from eos, dawn, and cainos, recent, because the fossil shells of this period contain an extremely small proportion of living species, which may be looked upon as indicating the dawn of the existing state of the testaceous fauna, no recent species having been detected in the older or secondary rocks.

The term Miocene (from meion, less, and cainos,

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recent) is intended to express a minor proportion of recent species (of testacea), the term Pliocene (from pleion, more, and cainos, recent) a comparative plurality of the same. It may assist the memory of students to remind them, that the Miocene contain a minor proportion, and Pliocene a comparative plurality of recent species; and that the greater number of recent species always implies the more modern origin of the strata.

It has sometimes been objected to this nomenclature that certain species of infusoria found in the chalk are still existing, and, on the other hand, the Miocene and Older Pliocene deposits often contain the remains of mammalia, reptiles, and fish, exclusively of extinct species. But the reader must bear in mind that the terms Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene were originally invented with reference purely to conchological data, and in that sense have always been and are still used by me.

Since the year 1830 the number of known shells, both recent and fossil, has largely increased, and their identification has been more accurately determined. Hence some modifications have been required in the classifications founded on less perfect materials. The Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene periods have been made to comprehend certain sets of strata of which the fossils do not always conform strictly in the proportion of recent to extinct species with the definitions first given by me, or which are implied in the etymology of those terms.

historical
 

Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

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

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