The Student's Elements of Geology
by Sir Charles Lyell
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The possible causes of the folding of strata by lateral movements have been considered in a former part of this chapter. No European chain of mountains affords so remarkable an illustration of the persistency of such flexures for a great distance as the Appalachians before alluded to, and none has been studied and described by many good observers with more accuracy. The chain extends from north to south, or rather N.N.E. to S.S.W., for nearly 1500 miles, with a breadth of 50 miles, throughout which the Palaeozoic strata have been so bent as to form a series of parallel anticlinal and synclinal ridges and troughs, comprising usually three or four principal and many smaller plications, some of them forming broad and gentle arches, others narrower and steeper ones, while some, where the bending has been greatest, have the position of their beds inverted, as before shown in Figure 73.

The strike of the parallel ridges, after continuing in a straight line for many hundred miles, is then found to vary for a more limited distance as much as 30 degrees, the folds wheeling round together in the new direction and continuing to be parallel, as if they had all obeyed the same movement. The date of the movements by which the great flexures were brought about must, of course, be subsequent to the formation of the uppermost part of the coal or the newest of the bent rocks, but the disturbance must have ceased before the Triassic strata were deposited on the denuded edges of the folded beds.

The manner in which the numerous parallel folds, all simultaneously formed, assume a new direction common to the whole of them, and sometimes varying at an angle of 30 degrees from the normal strike of the chain, shows what deviation from an otherwise uniform strike of the beds may be experienced when the geographical area through which they are traced is on so vast a scale.

The disturbances in the case here adverted to occurred between the Carboniferous period and that of the Trias, and this interval is so vast that they may have occupied a great lapse of time, during which their parallelism was always preserved. But, as a rule, wherever after a long geological interval the recurrence of lateral movements gives rise to a new set of folds, the strike of these last is different. Thus, for example, Mr. Hull has pointed out that three principal lines of disturbance, all later than the Carboniferous period, have affected the stratified rocks of Lancashire. The first of these, having an E.N.E. direction, took place at the close of the Carboniferous period. The next, running north and south, at the close of the Permian, and the third, having a N.N.W. direction, at the close of the Jurassic period. (Edward Hull Quarterly Geological Journal volume 24 page 323.)


(FIGURE 78. Unconformable junction of old red sandstone and Silurian schist at the Siccar Point, near St. Abb's Head, Berwickshire.)

Strata are said to be unconformable when one series is so placed over another that the planes of the superior repose on the edges of the inferior (see Figure 78.) In this case it is evident that a period had elapsed between the production of the two sets of strata, and that, during this interval, the older series had been tilted and disturbed. Afterwards the upper series was thrown down in horizontal strata upon it. If these superior beds, d d Figure 78, are also inclined, it is plain that the lower strata a a, have been twice displaced; first, before the deposition of the newer beds, d d, and a second time when these same strata were upraised out of the sea, and thrown slightly out of the horizontal position.

(FIGURE 79. Junction of unconformable strata near Mons, in Belgium.)

It often happens that in the interval between the deposition of two sets of unconformable strata, the inferior rock has not only been denuded, but drilled by perforating shells. Thus, for example, at Autreppe and Gusigny, near Mons, beds of an ancient (primary or palaeozoic) limestone, highly inclined, and often bent, are covered with horizontal strata of greenish and whitish marls of the Cretaceous formation. The lowest, and therefore the oldest, bed of the horizontal series is usually the sand and conglomerate, a, in which are rounded fragments of stone, from an inch to two feet in diameter. These fragments have often adhering shells attached to them, and have been bored by perforating mollusca. The solid surface of the inferior limestone has also been bored, so as to exhibit cylindrical and pear-shaped cavities, as at c, the work of saxicavous mollusca; and many rents, as at b, which descend several feet or yards into the limestone, have been filled with sand and shells, similar to those in the stratum a.


Strata are said to overlap when an upper bed extends beyond the limits of a lower one. This may be produced in various ways; as, for example, when alterations of physical geography cause the arms of a river or channels of discharge to vary, so that sediment brought down is deposited over a wider area than before, or when the sea-bottom has been raised up and again depressed without disturbing the horizontal position of the strata. In this case the newer strata may rest for the most part conformably on the older, but, extending farther, pass over their edges. Every intermediate state between unconformable and over-lapping beds may occur, because there may be every gradation between a slight derangement of position, and a considerable disturbance and denudation of the older formation before the newer beds come on.



Denudation defined. Its Amount more than equal to the entire Mass of Stratified Deposits in the Earth's Crust. Subaerial Denudation. Action of the Wind. Action of Running Water. Alluvium defined. Different Ages of Alluvium. Denuding Power of Rivers affected by Rise or Fall of Land. Littoral Denudation. Inland Sea-Cliffs. Escarpments. Submarine Denudation. Dogger-bank. Newfoundland Bank. Denuding Power of the Ocean during Emergence of Land.

Denudation, which has been occasionally spoken of in the preceding chapters, is the removal of solid matter by water in motion, whether of rivers or of the waves and currents of the sea, and the consequent laying bare of some inferior rock. This operation has exerted an influence on the structure of the earth's crust as universal and important as sedimentary deposition itself; for denudation is the necessary antecedent of the production of all new strata of mechanical origin. The formation of every new deposit by the transport of sediment and pebbles necessarily implies that there has been, somewhere else, a grinding down of rock into rounded fragments, sand, or mud, equal in quantity to the new strata. All deposition, therefore, except in the case of a shower of volcanic ashes, and the outflow of lava, and the growth of certain organic formations, is the sign of superficial waste going on contemporaneously, and to an equal amount, elsewhere. The gain at one point is no more than sufficient to balance the loss at some other. Here a lake has grown shallower, there a ravine has been deepened. Here the depth of the sea has been augmented by the removal of a sandbank during a storm, there its bottom has been raised and shallowed by the accumulation in its bed of the same sand transported from the bank.

When we see a stone building, we know that somewhere, far or near, a quarry has been opened. The courses of stone in the building may be compared to successive strata, the quarry to a ravine or valley which has suffered denudation. As the strata, like the courses of hewn stone, have been laid one upon another gradually, so the excavation both of the valley and quarry have been gradual. To pursue the comparison still farther, the superficial heaps of mud, sand, and gravel, usually called alluvium, may be likened to the rubbish of a quarry which has been rejected as useless by the workmen, or has fallen upon the road between the quarry and the building, so as to lie scattered at random over the ground.

But we occasionally find in a conglomerate large rounded pebbles of an older conglomerate, which had previously been derived from a variety of different rocks. In such cases we are reminded that, the same materials having been used over and over again, it is not enough to affirm that the entire mass of stratified deposits in the earth's crust affords a monument and measure of the denudation which has taken place, for in truth the quantity of matter now extant in the form of stratified rock represents but a fraction of the material removed by water and redeposited in past ages.


Denudation may be divided into subaerial, or the action of wind, rain, and rivers; and submarine, or that effected by the waves of the sea, and its tides and currents. With the operation of the first of these we are best acquainted, and it may be well to give it our first attention.


In desert regions where no rain falls, or where, as in parts of the Sahara, the soil is so salt as to be without any covering of vegetation, clouds of dust and sand attest the power of the wind to cause the shifting of the unconsolidated or disintegrated rock.

In examining volcanic countries I have been much struck with the great superficial changes brought about by this power in the course of centuries. The highest peak of Madeira is about 6050 feet above the sea, and consists of the skeleton of a volcanic cone now 250 feet high, the beds of which once dipped from a centre in all directions at an angle of more than 30 degrees. The summit is formed of a dike of basalt with much olivine, fifteen feet wide, apparently the remains of a column of lava which once rose to the crater. Nearly all the scoriae of the upper part of the cone have been swept away, those portions only remaining which were hardened by the contact or proximity of the dike. While I was myself on this peak on January 25, 1854, I saw the wind, though it was not stormy weather, removing sand and dust derived from the decomposing scoriae. There had been frost in the night, and some ice was still seen in the crevices of the rock.

On the highest platform of the Grand Canary, at an elevation of 6000 feet, there is a cylindrical column of hard lava, from which the softer matter has been carried away; and other similar remnants of the dikes of cones of eruption attest the denuding power of the wind at points where running water could never have exerted any influence. The waste effected by wind aided by frost and snow, may not be trifling, even in a single winter, and when multiplied by centuries may become indefinitely great.


(FIGURE 80. Section through several eroded formations. a. Older alluvium or drift. b. Modern alluvium.)

There are different classes of phenomena which attest in a most striking manner the vast spaces left vacant by the erosive power of water. I may allude, first, to those valleys on both sides of which the same strata are seen following each other in the same order, and having the same mineral composition and fossil contents. We may observe, for example, several formations, as Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, in the diagram (Figure 80): No. 1, conglomerate, No. 2, clay, No. 3, grit, and No. 4, limestone, each repeated in a series of hills separated by valleys varying in depth. When we examine the subordinate parts of these four formations, we find, in like manner, distinct beds in each, corresponding, on the opposite sides of the valleys, both in composition and order of position. No one can doubt that the strata were originally continuous, and that some cause has swept away the portions which once connected the whole series. A torrent on the side of a mountain produces similar interruptions; and when we make artificial cuts in lowering roads, we expose, in like manner, corresponding beds on either side. But in nature, these appearances occur in mountains several thousand feet high, and separated by intervals of many miles or leagues in extent.

In the "Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain" (volume 1), Professor Ramsay has shown that the missing beds, removed from the summit of the Mendips, must have been nearly a mile in thickness; and he has pointed out considerable areas in South Wales and some of the adjacent counties of England, where a series of primary (or palaeozoic) strata, no less than 11,000 feet in thickness, have been stripped off. All these materials have of course been transported to new regions, and have entered into the composition of more modern formations. On the other hand, it is shown by observations in the same "Survey," that the Palaeozoic strata are from 20,000 to 30,000 feet thick. It is clear that such rocks, formed of mud and sand, now for the most part consolidated, are the monuments of denuding operations, which took place on a grand scale at a very remote period in the earth's history. For, whatever has been given to one area must always have been borrowed from another; a truth which, obvious as it may seem when thus stated, must be repeatedly impressed on the student's mind, because in many geological speculations it is taken for granted that the external crust of the earth has been always growing thicker in consequence of the accumulation, period after period, of sedimentary matter, as if the new strata were not always produced at the expense of pre-existing rocks, stratified or unstratified. By duly reflecting on the fact that all deposits of mechanical origin imply the transportation from some other region, whether contiguous or remote, of an equal amount of solid matter, we perceive that the stony exterior of the planet must always have grown thinner in one place, whenever, by accessions of new strata, it was acquiring thickness in another.

It is well known that generally at the mouths of large rivers, deltas are forming and the land is encroaching upon the sea; these deltas are monuments of recent denudation and deposition; and it is obvious that if the mud, sand, and gravel were taken from them and restored to the continents they would fill up a large part of the gullies and valleys which are due to the excavating and transporting power of torrents and rivers.


Between the superficial covering of vegetable mould and the subjacent rock there usually intervenes in every district a deposit of loose gravel, sand, and mud, to which when it occurs in valleys the name of alluvium has been popularly applied. The term is derived from alluvio, an inundation, or alluo, to wash, because the pebbles and sand commonly resemble those of a river's bed or the mud and gravel washed over low lands by a flood.

In the course of those changes in physical geography which may take place during the gradual emergence of the bottom of the sea and its conversion into dry land, any spot may either have been a sunken reef, or a bay, or estuary, or sea-shore, or the bed of a river. The drainage, moreover, may have been deranged again and again by earthquakes, during which temporary lakes are caused by landslips, and partial deluges occasioned by the bursting of the barriers of such lakes. For this reason it would be unreasonable to hope that we should ever be able to account for all the alluvial phenomena of each particular country, seeing that the causes of their origin are so various. Besides, the last operations of water have a tendency to disturb and confound together all pre-existing alluviums. Hence we are always in danger of regarding as the work of a single era, and the effect of one cause, what has in reality been the result of a variety of distinct agents, during a long succession of geological epochs. Much useful instruction may therefore be gained from the exploration of a country like Auvergne, where the superficial gravel of very different eras happens to have been preserved and kept separate by sheets of lava, which were poured out one after the other at periods when the denudation, and probably the upheaval, of rocks were in progress. That region had already acquired in some degree its present configuration before any volcanoes were in activity, and before any igneous matter was superimposed upon the granitic and fossiliferous formations. The pebbles therefore in the older gravels are exclusively constituted of granite and other aboriginal rocks; and afterwards, when volcanic vents burst forth into eruption, those earlier alluviums were covered by streams of lava, which protected them from intermixture with gravel of subsequent date. In the course of ages, a new system of valleys was excavated, so that the rivers ran at lower levels than those at which the first alluviums and sheets of lava were formed. When, therefore, fresh eruptions gave rise to new lava, the melted matter was poured out over lower grounds; and the gravel of these plains differed from the first or upland alluvium, by containing in it rounded fragments of various volcanic rocks, and often fossil bones belonging to species of land animals different from those which had previously flourished in the same country and been buried in older gravels.

(FIGURE 81. Lavas of Auvergne resting on alluviums of different ages.)

Figure 81 will explain the different heights at which beds of lava and gravel, each distinct from the other in composition and age, are observed, some on the flat tops of hills, 700 or 800 feet high, others on the slope of the same hills, and the newest of all in the channel of the existing river where there is usually gravel alone, although in some cases a narrow strip of solid lava shares the bottom of the valley with the river.

The proportion of extinct species of quadrupeds is more numerous in the fossil remains of the gravel No. 1 than in that indicated as No. 2; and in No. 3 they agree more closely, sometimes entirely, with those of the existing fauna. The usual absence or rarity of organic remains in beds of loose gravel and sand is partly owing to the friction which originally ground down the rocks into small fragments, and partly to the porous nature of alluvium, which allows the free percolation through it of rain-water, and promotes the decomposition and removal of fossil remains.

The loose transported matter on the surface of a large part of the land now existing in the temperate and arctic regions of the northern hemisphere, must be regarded as being in a somewhat exceptional state, in consequence of the important part which ice has played in comparatively modern geological times. This subject will be more specially alluded to when we describe, in the eleventh chapter, the deposits called "glacial."


It has long been a matter of common observation that most rivers are now cutting their channels through alluvial deposits of greater depth and extent than could ever have been formed by the present streams. From this fact it has been inferred that rivers in general have grown smaller, or become less liable to be flooded than formerly. It may be true that in the history of almost every country the rivers have been both larger and smaller than they are at the present moment. For the rainfall in particular regions varies according to climate and physical geography, and is especially governed by the elevation of the land above the sea, or its distance from it and other conditions equally fluctuating in the course of time. But the phenomenon alluded to may sometimes be accounted for by oscillations in the level of the land, experienced since the existing valleys originated, even where no marked diminution in the quantity of rain and in the size of the rivers has occurred.

We know that many large areas of land are rising and others sinking, and unless it could be assumed that both the upward and downward movements are everywhere uniform, many of the existing hydrographical basins ought to have the appearance of having been temporary lakes first filled with fluviatile strata and then partially re-excavated.

Suppose, for example, part of a continent, comprising within it a large hydrographical basin like that of the Mississippi, to subside several inches or feet in a century, as the west coast of Greenland, extending 600 miles north and south, has been sinking for three or four centuries, between the latitudes 60 and 69 degrees N. (Principles of Geology 7th edition page 506; 10th edition volume 2 page 196.) It will rarely happen that the rate of subsidence will be everywhere equal, and in many cases the amount of depression in the interior will regularly exceed that of the region nearer the sea. Whenever this happens, the fall of the waters flowing from the upland country will be diminished, and each tributary stream will have less power to carry its sand and sediment into the main river, and the main river less power to convey its annual burden of transported matter to the sea. All the rivers, therefore, will proceed to fill up partially their ancient channels, and, during frequent inundations, will raise their alluvial plains by new deposits. If then the same area of land be again upheaved to its former height, the fall, and consequently the velocity, of every river will begin to augment. Each of them will be less given to overflow its alluvial plain; and their power of carrying earthy matter seaward, and of scouring out and deepening their channels, will be sustained till, after a lapse of many thousand years, each of them has eroded a new channel or valley through a fluviatile formation of comparatively modern date. The surface of what was once the river-plain at the period of greatest depression, will then remain fringing the valley-sides in the form of a terrace apparently flat, but in reality sloping down with the general inclination of the river. Everywhere this terrace will present cliffs of gravel and sand, facing the river. That such a series of movements has actually taken place in the main valley of the Mississippi and in its tributary valleys during oscillations of level, I have endeavoured to show in my description of that country (Second Visit to the United States volume 1 chapter 34.); and the fresh-water shells of existing species and bones of land quadrupeds, partly of extinct races, preserved in the terraces of fluviatile origin, attest the exclusion of the sea during the whole process of filling up and partial re-excavation.


Part of the action of the waves between high and low watermark must be included in subaerial denudation, more especially as the undermining of cliffs by the waves is facilitated by land-springs, and these often lead to the sliding down of great masses of land into the sea. Along our coasts we find numerous submerged forests, only visible at low water, having the trunks of the trees erect and their roots attached to them and still spreading through the ancient soil as when they were living. They occur in too many places, and sometimes at too great a depth, to be explained by a mere change in the level of the tides, although as the coasts waste away and alter in shape, the height to which the tides rise and fall is always varying, and the level of high tide at any given point may, in the course of many ages, differ by several feet or even fathoms. It is this fluctuation in the height of the tides, and the erosion and destruction of the sea-coast by the waves, that makes it exceedingly difficult for us in a few centuries, or even perhaps in a few thousand years, to determine whether there is a change by subterranean movement in the relative level of sea and land.

We often behold, as on the coasts of Devonshire and Pembrokeshire, facts which appear to lead to opposite conclusions. In one place a raised beach with marine littoral shells, and in another immediately adjoining a submerged forest. These phenomena indicate oscillations of level, and as the movements are very gradual, they must give repeated opportunities to the breakers to denude the land which is thus again and again exposed to their fury, although it is evident that the submergence is sometimes effected in such a manner as to allow the trees which border the coast not to be carried away.


In countries where hard limestone rocks abound, inland cliffs have often retained faithfully for ages the characters which they acquired when they constituted the boundary of land and sea. Thus, in the Morea, no less than three or even four ranges of cliffs are well-preserved, rising one above the other at different distances from the actual shore, the summit of the highest and oldest occasionally attaining 1000 feet in elevation. A consolidated beach with marine shells is usually found at the base of each cliff, and a line of littoral caverns. These ranges of cliff probably imply pauses in the process of upheaval when the waves and currents had time to undermine and clear away considerable masses of rock.

But the beginner should be warned not to expect to find evidence of the former sojourn of the sea on all those lands which we are nevertheless sure have been submerged at periods comparatively modern; for notwithstanding the enduring nature of the marks left by littoral action on some rocks, especially limestones, we can by no means detect sea-beaches and inland cliffs everywhere. On the contrary, they are, upon the whole, extremely partial, and are often entirely wanting in districts composed of argillaceous and sandy formations, which must, nevertheless, have been upheaved at the same time, and by the same intermittent movements, as the adjoining harder rocks.


Besides the inland cliffs above alluded to which mark the ancient limits of the sea, there are other abrupt terminations of rocks of various kinds which resemble sea-cliffs, but which have in reality been due to subaerial denudation. These have been called "escarpments," a term which it is useful to confine to the outcrop of particular formations having a scarped outline, as distinct from cliffs due to marine action.

I formerly supposed that the steep line of cliff-like slopes seen along the outcrop of the chalk, when we follow the edge of the North or South Downs, was due to marine action; but Professor Ramsay has shown (Physical Geography and Geology of Great Britain page 78 1864.) that the present outline of the physical geography is more in favour of the idea of the escarpments having been due to gradual waste since the rocks were exposed in the atmosphere to the action of rain and rivers.

Mr. Whittaker has given a good summary of the grounds for ascribing these apparent sea-cliffs to waste in the open air. 1. There is an absence of all signs of ancient sea-beaches or littoral deposits at the base of the escarpment. 2. Great inequality is observed in the level of the base line. 3. The escarpments do not intersect, like sea-cliffs, a series of distinct rocks, but are always confined to the boundary-line of the same formation. 4. There are sometimes different contiguous and parallel escarpments— those, for example, of the greensand and chalk— which are so near each other, and occasionally so similar in altitude, that we can not imagine any existing archipelago if converted into dry land to present a like outline.

The above theory is by no means inconsistent with the opinion that the limits of the outcrop of the chalk and greensand which the escarpments now follow, were originally determined by marine denudation. When the south-east of England last emerged from beneath the level of the sea, it was acted upon, no doubt, by the tide, waves, and currents, and the chalk would form from the first a mass projecting above the more destructible clay called Gault. Still the present escarpments so much resembling sea-cliffs have no doubt, for reasons above stated, derived their most characteristic features subsequently to emergence from subaerial waste by rain and rivers.


When we attempt to estimate the amount of submarine denudation, we become sensible of the disadvantage under which we labour from our habitual incapacity of observing the action of marine currents on the bed of the sea. We know that the agitation of the waves, even during storms, diminishes at a rapid rate, so as to become very insignificant at the depth of a few fathoms, and is quite imperceptible at the depth of about sixteen fathoms; but when large bodies of water are transferred by a current from one part of the ocean to another, they are known to maintain at great depths such a velocity as must enable them to remove the finer, and sometimes even the coarser, materials of the rocks over which they flow. As the Mississippi when more than 150 feet deep can keep open its channel and even carry down gravel and sand to its delta, the surface velocity being not more than two or three miles an hour, so a gigantic current, like the Gulf Stream, equal in volume to many hundred Mississippis, and having in parts a surface velocity of more than three miles, may act as a propelling and abrading power at still greater depths. But the efficacy of the sea as a denuding agent, geologically considered, is not dependent on the power of currents to preserve at great depths a velocity sufficient to remove sand and mud, because, even where the deposition or removal of sediment is not in progress, the depth of water does not remain constant throughout geological time. Every page of the geological record proves to us that the relative levels of land and sea, and the position of the ocean and of continents and islands, has been always varying, and we may feel sure that some portions of the submarine area are now rising and others sinking. The force of tidal and other currents and of the waves during storms is sufficient to prevent the emergence of many lands, even though they may be undergoing continual upheaval. It is not an uncommon error to imagine that the waste of sea-cliffs affords the measure of the amount of marine denudation of which it probably constitutes an insignificant portion.


That great shoal called the Dogger-bank, about sixty miles east of the coast of Northumberland, and occupying an area about as large as Wales, has nowhere a depth of more than ninety feet, and in its shallower parts is less than forty feet under water. It might contribute towards the safety of the navigation of our seas to form an artificial island, and to erect a light-house on this bank; but no engineer would be rash enough to attempt it, as he would feel sure that the ocean in the first heavy gale would sweep it away as readily as it does every temporary shoal that accumulates from time to time around a sunk vessel on the same bank. (Principles 10th edition volume 1 page 569.)

No observed geographical changes in historical times entitle us to assume that where upheaval may be in progress it proceeds at a rapid rate. Three or four feet rather than as many yards in a century may probably be as much as we can reckon upon in our speculations; and if such be the case, the continuance of the upward movement might easily be counteracted by the denuding force of such currents aided by such waves as, during a gale, are known to prevail in the German Ocean. What parts of the bed of the ocean are stationary at present, and what areas may be rising or sinking, is a matter of which we are very ignorant, as the taking of accurate soundings is but of recent date.


The great bank of Newfoundland may be compared in size to the whole of England. This part of the bottom of the Atlantic is surrounded on three sides by a rapidly deepening ocean, the bank itself being from twenty to fifty fathoms (or from 120 to 300 feet) under water. We are unable to determine by the comparison of different charts made at distant periods, whether it is undergoing any change of level, but if it be gradually rising we can not anticipate on that account that it will become land, because the breakers in an open sea would exercise a prodigious force even on solid rock brought up to within a few yards of the surface. We know, for example, that when a new volcanic island rose in the Mediterranean in 1831, the waves were capable in a few years of reducing it to a sunken rock.

In the same way currents which flow over the Newfoundland bank a great part of the year at the rate of two miles an hour, and are known to retain a considerable velocity to near the bottom, may carry away all loose sand and mud, and make the emergence of the shoal impossible, in spite of the accessions of mud, sand, and boulders derived occasionally from melting icebergs which, coming from the northern glaciers, are frequently stranded on various parts of the bank. They must often leave at the bottom large erratic blocks which the marine currents may be incapable of moving, but the same rocky fragments may be made to sink by the undermining of beds consisting of finer matter on which the blocks and gravel repose. In this way gravel and boulders may continue to overspread a submarine bottom after the latter has been lowered for hundreds of feet, the surface never having been able to emerge and become land. It is by no means improbable that the annual removal of an average thickness of half an inch of rock might counteract the ordinary upheaval which large submarine areas are undergoing; and the real enigma which the geologist has to solve is not the extensive denudation of the white chalk or of our tertiary sands and clays, but the fact that such incoherent materials have ever succeeded in lifting up their heads above water in an open sea. Why were they not swept away during storms into some adjoining abysses, the highest parts of each shoal being always planed off down to the depth of a few fathoms? The hardness and toughness of some rocks already exposed to windward and acting as breakwaters may perhaps have assisted; nor must we forget the protection afforded by a dense and unbroken covering of barnacles, limpets, and other creatures which flourish most between high and low water and shelter some newly risen coasts from the waves.



How we obtain an Insight at the Surface, of the Arrangement of Rocks at great Depths. Why the Height of the successive Strata in a given Region is so disproportionate to their Thickness. Computation of the average annual Amount of subaerial Denudation. Antagonism of Volcanic Force to the Levelling Power of running Water. How far the Transfer of Sediment from the Land to a neighbouring Sea-bottom may affect Subterranean Movements. Permanence of Continental and Oceanic Areas.


The reader has been already informed that, in the structure of the earth's crust, we often find proofs of the direct superposition of marine to fresh-water strata, and also evidence of the alternation of deep-sea and shallow-water formations. In order to explain how such a series of rocks could be made to form our present continents and islands, we have not only to assume that there have been alternate upward and downward movements of great vertical extent, but that the upheaval in the areas which we at present inhabit has, in later geological times, sufficiently predominated over subsidence to cause these portions of the earth's crust to be land instead of sea. The sinking down of a delta beneath the sea-level may cause strata of fluviatile or even terrestrial origin, such as peat with trees proper to marshes, to be covered by deposits of deep-sea origin. There is also no end to the thickness of mud and sand which may accumulate in shallow water, provided that fresh sediment is brought down from the wasting land at a rate corresponding to that of the sinking of the bed of the sea. The latter, again, may sometimes sink so fast that the earthy matter, being intercepted in some new landward depression, may never reach its former resting- place, where, the water becoming clear may favour the growth of shells and corals, and calcareous rocks of organic origin may thus be superimposed on mechanical deposits.

The succession of strata here alluded to would be consistent with the occurrence of gradual downward and upward movements of the land and bed of the sea without any disturbance of the horizontality of the several formations. But the arrangement of rocks composing the earth's crust differs materially from that which would result from a mere series of vertical movements. Had the volcanic forces been confined to such movements, and had the stratified rocks been first formed beneath the sea and then raised above it, without any lateral compression, the geologist would never have obtained an insight into the monuments of various ages, some of extremely remote antiquity.

What we have said in Chapter 5 of dip and strike, of the folding and inversion of strata, of anticlinal and synclinal flexures, and in Chapter 6 of denudation at different periods, whether subaerial or submarine, must be understood before the student can comprehend what may at first seem to him an anomaly, but which it is his business particularly to understand. I allude to the small height above the level of the sea attained by strata often many miles in thickness, and about the chronological succession of which, in one and the same region, there is no doubt whatever. Had stratified rocks in general remained horizontal, the waves of the sea would have been enabled during oscillations of level to plane off entirely the uppermost beds as they rose or sank during the emergence or submergence of the land. But the occurrence of a series of formations of widely different ages, all remaining horizontal and in conformable stratification, is exceptional, and for this reason the total annihilation of the uppermost strata has rarely taken place. We owe, indeed, to the side way movements of LATERAL COMPRESSION those anticlinal and synclinal curves of the beds already described (Figure 55 Chapter 4), which, together with denudation, subaerial and submarine, enable us to investigate the structure of the earth's crust many miles below those points which the miner can reach. I have already shown in Figure 56 Chapter 4, how, at St. Abb's Head, a series of strata of indefinite thickness may become vertical, and then denuded, so that the edges of the beds alone shall be exposed to view, the altitude of the upheaved ridges being reduced to a moderate height above the sea-level; and it may be observed that although the incumbent strata of Old Red Sandstone are in that place nearly horizontal, yet these same newer beds will in other places be found so folded as to present vertical strata, the edges of which are abruptly cut off, as in 2, 3, 4 on the right-hand side of the diagram, Figure 55 Chapter 4.


We can not too distinctly bear in mind how dependent we are on the joint action of the volcanic and aqueous forces, the one in disturbing the original position of rocks, and the other in destroying large portions of them, for our power of consulting the different pages and volumes of those stony records of which the crust of the globe is composed. Why, it may be asked, if the ancient bed of the sea has been in many regions uplifted to the height of two or three miles, and sometimes twice that altitude, and if it can be proved that some single formations are of themselves two or three miles thick, do we so often find several important groups resting one upon the other, yet attaining only the height of a few hundred feet above the level of the sea?

The American geologists, after carefully studying the Allegheny or Appalachian mountains, have ascertained that the older fossiliferous rocks of that chain (from the Silurian to the Carboniferous inclusive) are not less than 42,000 feet thick, and if they were now superimposed on each other in the order in which they were thrown down, they ought to equal in height the Himalayas with the Alps piled upon them. Yet they rarely reach an altitude of 5000 feet, and their loftiest peaks are no more than 7000 feet high. The Carboniferous strata forming the highest member of the series, and containing beds of coal, can be shown to be of shallow-water origin, or even sometimes to have originated in swamps in the open air. But what is more surprising, the lowest part of this great Palaeozoic series, instead of having been thrown down at the bottom of an abyss more than 40,000 feet deep, consists of sediment (the Potsdam sandstone), evidently spread out on the bottom of a shallow sea, on which ripple-marked sands were occasionally formed. This vast thickness of 40,000 feet is not obtained by adding together the maximum density attained by each formation in distant parts of the chain, but by measuring the successive groups as they are exposed in a very limited area, and where the denuded edges of the vertical strata forming the parallel folds alluded to in Chapter 5 "crop out" at the surface. Our attention has been called by Mr. James Hall, Palaeontologist of New York, to the fact that these Palaeozoic rocks of the Appalachian chain, which are of such enormous density, where they are almost entirely of mechanical origin, thin out gradually as they are traced to the westward, where evidently the contemporaneous seas allowed organic rocks to be formed by corals, echinoderms, and encrinites in clearer water, and where, although the same successive periods are represented, the total mass of strata from the Silurian to the Carboniferous, instead of being 40,000 is only 4000 feet thick.

A like phenomenon is exhibited in every mountainous country, as, for example, in the European Alps; but we need not go farther than the north of England for its illustration. Thus in Lancashire and central England the thickness of the Carboniferous formation, including the Millstone Grit and Yoredale beds, is computed to be more than 18,000 feet; to this we may add the Mountain Limestone, at least 2000 feet in thickness, and the overlying Permian and Triassic formations, 3000 or 4000 feet thick. How then does it happen that the loftiest hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire, instead of being 24,000 feet high, never rise above 3000 feet? For here, as before pointed out in the Alleghenies, all the great thicknesses are sometimes found in close approximation and in a region only a few miles in diameter. It is true that these same sets of strata do not preserve their full force when followed for indefinite distances. Thus the 18,000 feet of Carboniferous grits and shales in Lancashire, before alluded to, gradually thin out, as Mr. Hull has shown, as they extend southward, by attenuation or original deficiency of sediment, and not in consequence of subsequent denudation, so that when we have followed them for about 100 miles into Leicestershire, they have dwindled away to a thickness of only 3000 feet. In the same region the Carboniferous limestone attains so unusual a thickness— namely, more than 4000 feet— as to appear to compensate in some measure for the deficiency of contemporaneous sedimentary rock. (Hull Quarterly Geological Journal volume 24 page 322 1868.)

(FIGURE 82. Unconformable Palaeozoic strata, Sutherlandshire (Murchison). Queenaig (2673 feet). 1. Laurentian gneiss. 2. Cambrian conglomerate and sandstone. 3, 3'. Quartzose Lower Silurian, with annelid burrows.)

It is admitted that when two formations are unconformable their fossil remains almost always differ considerably. The break in the continuity of the organic forms seems connected with a great lapse of time, and the same interval has allowed extensive disturbance of the strata, and removal of parts of them by denudation, to take place. The more we extend our investigations the more numerous do the proofs of these breaks become, and they extend to the most ancient rocks yet discovered. The oldest examples yet brought to light in the British Isles are on the borders of Rosshire and Sutherlandshire, and have been well described by Sir Roderick Murchison, by whom their chronological relations were admirably worked out, and proved to be very different from those which previous observers had imagined them to be. I had an opportunity in the autumn of 1869 of verifying the splendid section given in Figure 82 by climbing in a few hours from the banks of Loch Assynt to the summit of the mountain called Queenaig, 2673 feet high.

The formations 1, 2, 3, the Laurentian, Cambrian, and Silurian, to be explained in Chapters 25 and 26, not only occur in succession in this one mountain, but their unconformable junctions are distinctly exposed to view.

To begin with the oldest set of rocks, No. 1; they consist chiefly of hornblendic gneiss, and in the neighbouring Hebrides form whole islands, attaining a thickness of thousands of feet, although they have suffered such contortions and denudation that they seldom rise more than a few hundred feet above the sea-level. In discordant stratification upon the edges of this gneiss reposes No. 2, a group of conglomerate and purple sandstone referable to the Cambrian (or Longmynd) formation, which can elsewhere be shown to be characterised by its peculiar organic remains. On this again rests No. 3, a lower member of the important group called Silurian, an outlier of which, 3', caps the summit of Queenaig, attesting the removal by denudation of rocks of the same age, which once extended from the great mass 3 to 3'. Although this rock now consists of solid quartz, it is clear that in its original state it was formed of fine sand, perforated by numerous lob-worms or annelids, which left their burrows in the shape of tubular hollows (Chapter 26, Figure 563 of Arenicolites), hundreds, nay thousands, of which I saw as I ascended the mountain.

(FIGURE 83. Diagrammatic section of the same groups near Queenaig (Murchison) through west (left), Suilvein, Assynt and Ben More, east (right). 1. Laurentian gneiss. 2. Cambrian conglomerate and sandstone. 3, 3'. Quartzose Lower Silurian, with annelid burrows. 3a. Fossiliferous Silurian limestone. 3b. Quartzose, micaceous and gneissose rocks (altered Silurian).)

In Queenaig we only behold this single quartzose member of the Silurian series, but in the neighbouring country (see Figure 83) it is seen to the eastward to be followed by limestones, 3a, and schists, 3b, presenting numerous folds, and becoming more and more metamorphic and crystalline, until at length, although very different in age and strike, they much resemble in appearance the group No. 1. It is very seldom that in the same country one continuous formation, such as the Silurian, is, as in this case, more fossiliferous and less altered by volcanic heat in its older than in its newer strata, and still more rare to find an underlying and unconformable group like the Cambrian retaining its original condition of a conglomerate and sandstone more perfectly than the overlying formation. Here also we may remark in regard to the origin of these Cambrian rocks that they were evidently produced at the expense of the underlying Laurentian, for the rounded pebbles occurring in them are identical in composition and texture with that crystalline gneiss which constitutes the contorted beds of the inferior formation No. 1. When the reader has studied the chapter on metamorphism, and has become aware how much modification by heat, pressure, and chemical action is required before the conversion of sedimentary into crystalline strata can be brought about, he will appreciate the insight which we thus gain into the date of the changes which had already been effected in the Laurentian rocks long before the Cambrian pebbles of quartz and gneiss were derived from them. The Laurentian is estimated by Sir William Logan to amount in Canada to 30,000 feet in thickness. As to the Cambrian, it is supposed by Sir Roderick Murchison that the fragment left in Sutherlandshire is about 3500 feet thick, and in Wales and the borders of Shropshire this formation may equal 10,000 feet, while the Silurian strata No. 3, difficult as it may be to measure them in their various foldings to the eastward, where they have been invaded by intrusive masses of granite, are supposed many times to surpass the Cambrian in volume and density.

But although we are dealing here with stratified rocks, each of which would be several miles in thickness, if they were fully represented, the whole of them do not attain the elevation of a single mile above the level of the sea.


The geology of the district above alluded to may assist our imagination in conceiving the extent to which groups of ancient rocks, each of which may in their turn have formed continents and oceanic basins, have been disturbed, folded, and denuded even in the course of a few out of many of those geological periods to which our imperfect records relate. It is not easy for us to overestimate the effects which causes in every day action must produce when the multiplying power of time is taken into account.

Attempts were made by Manfredi in 1736, and afterwards by Playfair in 1802, to calculate the time which it would require to enable the rivers to deliver over the whole of the land into the basin of the ocean. The data were at first too imperfect and vague to allow them even to approximate to safe conclusions. But in our own time similar investigations have been renewed with more prospect of success, the amount brought down by many large rivers to the sea having been more accurately ascertained. Mr. Alfred Tylor, in 1850, inferred that the quantity of detritus now being distributed over the sea-bottom would, at the end of 10,000 years, cause an elevation of the sea-level to the extent of at least three inches. (Tylor Philosophical Magazine 4th series page 268 1850.) Subsequently Mr. Croll, in 1867, and again, with more exactness, in 1868, deduced from the latest measurement of the sediment transported by European and American rivers the rate of subaerial denudation to which the surface of large continents is exposed, taking especially the hydrographical basin of the Mississippi as affording the best available measure of the average waste of the land. The conclusion arrived at in his able memoir was that the whole terrestrial surface is denuded at the rate of one foot in 6000 years (Croll Philosophical Magazine 1868 page 381.), and this opinion was simultaneously enforced by his fellow-labourer, Mr. Geikie, who, being jointly engaged in the same line of inquiry, published a luminous essay on the subject in 1868.

The student, by referring to my "Principles of Geology" (Volume 1 page 442 1867.) may see that Messrs. Humphrey and Abbot, during their survey of the Mississippi, attempted to make accurate measurements of the proportion of sediment carried down annually to the sea by that river, including not only the mud held in suspension, but also the sand and gravel forced along the bottom.

It is evident that when we know the dimensions of the area which is drained, and the annual quantity of earthy matter taken from it and borne into the sea, we can affirm how much on an average has been removed from the general surface in one year, and there seems no danger of our overrating the mean rate of waste by selecting the Mississippi as our example, for that river drains a country equal to more than half the continent of Europe, extends through twenty degrees of latitude, and therefore through regions enjoying a great variety of climate, and some of its tributaries descend from mountains of great height. The Mississippi is also more likely to afford us a fair test of ordinary denudation, because, unlike the St. Lawrence and its tributaries, there are no great lakes in which the fluviatile sediment is thrown down and arrested in its way to the sea. In striking a general average we have to remember that there are large deserts in which there is scarcely any rainfall, and tracts which are as rainless as parts of Peru, and these must not be neglected as counterbalancing others, in the tropics, where the quantity of rain is in excess. If then, argues Mr. Geikie, we assume that the Mississippi is lowering the surface of the great basin which it drains at the rate of one foot in 6000 years, 10 feet in 60,000 years, 100 feet in 600,000 years, and 1000 feet in 6,000,000 years, it would not require more than about 4,500,000 years to wear away the whole of the North American continent if its mean height is correctly estimated by Humboldt at 748 feet. And if the mean height of all the land now above the sea throughout the globe is 1000 feet, as some geographers believe, it would only require six million years to subject a mass of rock equal in volume to the whole of the land to the action of subaerial denudation. It may be objected that the annual waste is partial, and not equally derived from the general surface of the country, inasmuch as plains, water-sheds, and level ground at all heights remain comparatively unaltered; but this, as Mr. Geikie has well pointed out, does not affect our estimate of the sum total of denudation. The amount remains the same, and if we allow too little for the loss from the surface of table-lands we only increase the proportion of the loss sustained by the sides and bottoms of the valleys, and vice versa. (Transactions of the Geological Society Glasgow volume 3 page 169.)


In all these estimates it is assumed that the entire quantity of land above the sea-level remains on an average undiminished in spite of annual waste. Were it otherwise the subaerial denudation would be continually lessened by the diminution of the height and dimensions of the land exposed to waste. Unfortunately we have as yet no accurate data enabling us to measure the action of that force by which the inequalities of the surface of the earth's crust may be restored, and the height of the continents and depth of the seas made to continue unimpaired. I stated in 1830 in the "Principles of Geology" (1st edition chapter 10 page 167 1830; see also 10th edition volume 1 chapter 15 page 327 1867.), that running water and volcanic action are two antagonistic forces; the one labouring continually to reduce the whole of the land to the level of the sea, the other to restore and maintain the inequalities of the crust on which the very existence of islands and continents depends. I stated, however, that when we endeavour to form some idea of the relation of these destroying and renovating forces, we must always bear in mind that it is not simply by upheaval that subterranean movements can counteract the levelling force of running water. For whereas the transportation of sediment from the land to the ocean would raise the general sea-level, the subsidence of the sea-bottom, by increasing its capacity, would check this rise and prevent the submergence of the land. I have, indeed, endeavoured to show that unless we assume that there is, on the whole, more subsidence than upheaval, we must suppose the diameter of the planet to be always increasing, by that quantity of volcanic matter which is annually poured out in the shape of lava or ashes, whether on the land or in the bed of the sea, and which is derived from the interior of the earth. The abstraction of this matter causes, no doubt, subterranean vacuities and a corresponding giving way of the surface; if it were not so, the average density of parts of the interior would be always lessening and the size of the planet increasing. (Principles volume 2 page 237; also 1st edition page 447 1830.)

Our inability to estimate the amount or direction of the movements due to volcanic power by no means renders its efficacy as a land-preserving force in past times a mere matter of conjecture. The student will see in Chapter 24 that we have proofs of Carboniferous forests hundreds of miles in extent which grew on the lowlands or deltas near the sea, and which subsided and gave place to other forests, until in some regions fluviatile and shallow-water strata with occasional seams of coal were piled one over the other, till they attained a thickness of many thousand feet. Such accumulations, observed in Great Britain and America on opposite sides of the Atlantic, imply the long-continued existence of land vegetation, and of rivers draining a former continent placed where there is now deep sea.

It will be also seen in Chapter 25 that we have evidence of a rich terrestrial flora, the Devonian, even more ancient than the Carboniferous; while on the other hand, the later Triassic, Oolitic, Cretaceous, and successive Tertiary periods have all supplied us with fossil plants, insects, or terrestrial mammalia; showing that, in spite of great oscillations of level and continued changes in the position of land and sea, the volcanic forces have maintained a due proportion of dry land. We may appeal also to fresh-water formations, such as the Purbeck and Wealden, to prove that in the Oolitic and Neocomian eras there were rivers draining ancient lands in Europe in times when we know that other spaces, now above water, were submerged.


Little as we understand at present the laws which govern the distribution of volcanic heat in the interior and crust of the globe, by which mountain chains, high table-lands, and the abysses of the ocean are formed, it seems clear that this heat is the prime mover on which all the grander features in the external configuration of the planet depend.

It has been suggested that the stripping off by denudation of dense masses from one part of a continent and the delivery of the same into the bed of the ocean must have a decided effect in causing changes of temperature in the earth's crust below, or, in other words, in causing the subterranean isothermals to shift their position. If this be so, one part of the crust may be made to rise, and another to sink, by the expansion and contraction of the rocks, of which the temperature is altered.

I can not, at present, discuss this subject, of which I have treated more fully elsewhere (Principles volume 2 page 229 1868.), but may state here that I believe this transfer of sediment to play a very subordinate part in modifying those movements on which the configuration of the earth's crust depends. In order that strata of shallow-water origin should be able to attain a thickness of several thousand feet, and so come to exert a considerable downward pressure, there must have been first some independent and antecedent causes at work which have given rise to the incipient shallow receptacle in which the sediment began to accumulate. The same causes there continuing to depress the sea-bottom, room would be made for fresh accessions of sediment, and it would only be by a long repetition of the depositing process that the new matter could acquire weight enough to affect the temperature of the rocks far below, so as to increase or diminish their volume.


If the thickness of more than 40,000 feet of sedimentary strata before alluded to in the Appalachians proves a preponderance of downward movements in Palaeozoic times in a district now forming the eastern border of North America, it also proves, as before hinted, the continued existence and waste of some neighbouring continent, probably formed of Laurentian rocks, and situated where the Atlantic now prevails. Such an hypothesis would be in perfect harmony with the conclusions forced upon us by the study of the present configuration of our continents, and the relation of their height to the depth of the oceanic basins; also to the considerable elevation and extent sometimes reached by drift containing shells of recent species, and still more by the fact of sedimentary strata, several thousand feet thick, as those of central Sicily, or such as flank the Alps and Apennines, containing fossil Mollusca sometimes almost wholly identical with species still living.

I have remarked elsewhere (Principles volume 1 page 265 1867.) that upward and downward movements of 1000 feet or more would turn much land into sea and sea into land in the continental areas and their borders, whereas oscillations of equal magnitude would have no corresponding effect in the bed of the ocean generally, believed as it is to have a mean depth of 15,000 feet, and which, whether this estimate be correct or not, is certainly of great profundity. Subaerial denudation would not of itself lessen the area of the land, but would tend to fill up with sediment seas of moderate depth adjoining the coast. The coarser matter falls to the bottom near the shore in the first still water which it reaches, and whenever the sea-bottom on which this matter has been thrown is slightly elevated, it becomes land, and an upheaval of a thousand feet causes it to attain the mean elevation of continents in general.

Suppose, therefore, we had ascertained that the triturating power of subaerial denudation might in a given time— in three, or six, or a greater number of millions of years— pulverise a volume of rock equal in dimensions to all the present land, we might yet find, could we revisit the earth at the end of such a period, that the continents occupied very much the same position which they held before; we should find the rivers employed in carrying down to the sea the very same mud, sand, and pebbles with which they had been charged in our own time, the superficial alluvial matter as well as a great thickness of sedimentary strata would inclose shells, all or a great part of which we should recognise as specifically identical with those already known to us as living. Every geologist is aware that great as have been the geographical changes in the northern hemisphere since the commencement of the Glacial Period, there having been submergence and re-emergence of land to the extent of 1000 feet vertically, and in the temperate latitudes great vicissitudes of climate, the marine mollusca have not changed, and the same drift which had been carried down to the sea at the beginning of the period is now undergoing a second transportation in the same direction.

As when we have measured a fraction of time in an hour-glass we have only to reverse the position of our chronometer and we make the same sand measure over again the duration of a second equal period, so when the volcanic force has remoulded the form of a continent and the adjoining sea-bottom, the same materials are made to do duty a second time. It is true that at each oscillation of level the solid rocks composing the original continent suffer some fresh denudation, and do not remain unimpaired like the wooden and glass framework of the hour-glass, still the wear and tear suffered by the larger area exposed to subaerial denudation consists either of loose drift or of sedimentary strata, which were thrown down in seas near the land, and subsequently upraised, the same continents and oceanic basins remaining in existence all the while.

From all that we know of the extreme slowness of the upward and downward movements which bring about even slight geographical changes, we may infer that it would require a long succession of geological periods to cause the submarine and supramarine areas to change places, even if the ascending movements in the one region and the descending in the other were continuously in one direction. But we have only to appeal to the structure of the Alps, where there are so many shallow and deep water formations of various ages crowded into a limited area, to convince ourselves that mountain chains are the result of great oscillations of level. High land is not produced simply by uniform upheaval, but by a predominance of elevatory over subsiding movements. Where the ocean is extremely deep it is because the sinking of the bottom has been in excess, in spite of interruptions by upheaval.

Yet persistent as may be the leading features of land and sea on the globe, they are not immutable. Some of the finest mud is doubtless carried to indefinite distances from the coast by marine currents, and we are taught by deep-sea dredgings that in clear water at depths equalling the height of the Alps organic beings may flourish, and their spoils slowly accumulate on the bottom. We also occasionally obtain evidence that submarine volcanoes are pouring out ashes and streams of lava in mid-ocean as well as on land (see Principles volume 2 page 64), and that wherever mountains like Etna, Vesuvius, and the Canary Islands are now the site of eruptions, there are signs of accompanying upheaval, by which beds of ashes full of recent marine shells have been uplifted many hundred feet. We need not be surprised, therefore, if we learn from geology that the continents and oceans were not always placed where they now are, although the imagination may well be overpowered when it endeavours to contemplate the quantity of time required for such revolutions.

We shall have gained a great step if we can approximate to the number of millions of years in which the average aqueous denudation going on upon the land would convey seaward a quantity of matter equal to the average volume of our continents, and this might give us a gauge of the minimum of volcanic force necessary to counteract such levelling power of running water; but to discover a relation between these great agencies and the rate at which species of organic beings vary, is at present wholly beyond the reach of our computation, though perhaps it may not prove eventually to transcend the powers of man.



Aqueous, Plutonic, volcanic, and metamorphic Rocks considered chronologically. Terms Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary; Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, and Cainozoic explained. On the different Ages of the aqueous Rocks. Three principal Tests of relative Age: Superposition, Mineral Character, and Fossils. Change of Mineral Character and Fossils in the same continuous Formation. Proofs that distinct Species of Animals and Plants have lived at successive Periods. Distinct Provinces of indigenous Species. Great Extent of single Provinces. Similar Laws prevailed at successive Geological Periods. Relative Importance of mineral and palaeontological Characters. Test of Age by included Fragments. Frequent Absence of Strata of intervening Periods. Tabular Views of fossiliferous Strata.


In the first chapter it was stated that the four great classes of rocks, the aqueous, the volcanic, the Plutonic, and the metamorphic, would each be considered not only in reference to their mineral characters, and mode of origin, but also to their relative age. In regard to the aqueous rocks, we have already seen that they are stratified, that some are calcareous, others argillaceous or siliceous, some made up of sand, others of pebbles; that some contain fresh-water, others marine fossils, and so forth; but the student has still to learn which rocks, exhibiting some or all of these characters, have originated at one period of the earth's history, and which at another.

To determine this point in reference to the fossiliferous formations is more easy than in any other class, and it is therefore the most convenient and natural method to begin by establishing a chronology for these strata, and then to refer as far as possible to the same divisions, the several groups of Plutonic, volcanic, and metamorphic rocks. Such a system of classification is not only recommended by its greater clearness and facility of application, but is also best fitted to strike the imagination by bringing into one view the contemporaneous revolutions of the inorganic and organic creations of former times. For the sedimentary formations are most readily distinguished by the different species of fossil animals and plants which they inclose, and of which one assemblage after another has flourished and then disappeared from the earth in succession.

In the present work, therefore, the four great classes of rocks, the aqueous, Plutonic, volcanic, and metamorphic, will form four parallel, or nearly parallel, columns in one chronological table. They will be considered as four sets of monuments relating to four contemporaneous, or nearly contemporaneous, series of events. I shall endeavour, in a subsequent chapter on the Plutonic rocks, to explain the manner in which certain masses belonging to each of the four classes of rocks may have originated simultaneously at every geological period, and how the earth's crust may have been continually remodelled, above and below, by aqueous and igneous causes, from times indefinitely remote. In the same manner as aqueous and fossiliferous strata are now formed in certain seas or lakes, while in other places volcanic rocks break out at the surface, and are connected with reservoirs of melted matter at vast depths in the bowels of the earth, so, at every era of the past, fossiliferous deposits and superficial igneous rocks were in progress contemporaneously with others of subterranean and Plutonic origin, and some sedimentary strata were exposed to heat, and made to assume a crystalline or metamorphic structure.

It can by no means be taken for granted, that during all these changes the solid crust of the earth has been increasing in thickness. It has been shown, that so far as aqueous action is concerned, the gain by fresh deposits, and the loss by denudation, must at each period have been equal (see Chapter 6); and in like manner, in the inferior portion of the earth's crust, the acquisition of new crystalline rocks, at each successive era, may merely have counterbalanced the loss sustained by the melting of materials previously consolidated. As to the relative antiquity of the crystalline foundations of the earth's crust, when compared to the fossiliferous and volcanic rocks which they support, I have already stated, in the first chapter, that to pronounce an opinion on this matter is as difficult as at once to decide which of the two, whether the foundations or superstructure of an ancient city built on wooden piles may be the oldest. We have seen that, to answer this question, we must first be prepared to say whether the work of decay and restoration had gone on most rapidly above or below; whether the average duration of the piles has exceeded that of the buildings, or the contrary. So also in regard to the relative age of the superior and inferior portions of the earth's crust; we can not hazard even a conjecture on this point, until we know whether, upon an average, the power of water above, or that of heat below, is most efficacious in giving new forms to solid matter.

The early geologists gave to all the crystalline and non-fossiliferous rocks the name of Primitive or Primary, under the idea that they were formed anterior to the appearance of life upon the earth, while the aqueous or fossiliferous strata were termed Secondary, and alluviums or other superficial deposits, Tertiary. The meaning of these terms, has, however, been gradually modified with advancing knowledge, and they are now used to designate three great chronological divisions under which all geological formations can be classed, each of them being characterised by the presence of distinctive groups of organic remains rather than by any mechanical peculiarities of the strata themselves. If, therefore, we retain the term "primary," it must not be held to designate a set of crystalline rocks some of which have been proved to be even of Tertiary age, but must be applied to all rocks older than the secondary formations. Some geologists, to avoid misapprehension, have introduced the term Palaeozoic for primary, from palaion, "ancient," and zoon, "an organic being," still retaining the terms secondary and tertiary; Mr. Phillips, for the sake of uniformity, has proposed Mesozoic, for secondary, from mesos, "middle," etc.; and Cainozoic, for tertiary, from kainos, "recent," etc.; but the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary have the claim of priority in their favour, and are of corresponding value.

It may perhaps be suggested that some metamorphic strata, and some granites, may be anterior in date to the oldest of the primary fossiliferous rocks. This opinion is doubtless true, and will be discussed in future chapters; but I may here observe, that when we arrange the four classes of rocks in four parallel columns in one table of chronology, it is by no means assumed that these columns are all of equal length; one may begin at an earlier period than the rest, and another may come down to a later point of time, and we may not be yet acquainted with the most ancient of the primary fossiliferous beds, or with the newest of the hypogene.

For reasons already stated, I proceed first to treat of the aqueous or fossiliferous formations considered in chronological order or in relation to the different periods at which they have been deposited.

There are three principal tests by which we determine the age of a given set of strata; first, superposition; secondly, mineral character; and, thirdly, organic remains. Some aid can occasionally be derived from a fourth kind of proof, namely, the fact of one deposit including in it fragments of a pre-existing rock, by which the relative ages of the two may, even in the absence of all other evidence, be determined.


The first and principal test of the age of one aqueous deposit, as compared to another, is relative position. It has been already stated, that, where strata are horizontal, the bed which lies uppermost is the newest of the whole, and that which lies at the bottom the most ancient. So, of a series of sedimentary formations, they are like volumes of history, in which each writer has recorded the annals of his own times, and then laid down the book, with the last written page uppermost, upon the volume in which the events of the era immediately preceding were commemorated. In this manner a lofty pile of chronicles is at length accumulated; and they are so arranged as to indicate, by their position alone, the order in which the events recorded in them have occurred.

In regard to the crust of the earth, however, there are some regions where, as the student has already been informed, the beds have been disturbed, and sometimes extensively thrown over and turned upside down. (See Chapter 5.) But an experienced geologist can rarely be deceived by these exceptional cases. When he finds that the strata are fractured, curved, inclined, or vertical, he knows that the original order of superposition must be doubtful, and he then endeavours to find sections in some neighbouring district where the strata are horizontal, or only slightly inclined. Here, the true order of sequence of the entire series of deposits being ascertained, a key is furnished for settling the chronology of those strata where the displacement is extreme.


The same rocks may often be observed to retain for miles, or even hundreds of miles, the same mineral peculiarities, if we follow the planes of stratification, or trace the beds, if they be undisturbed, in a horizontal direction. But if we pursue them vertically, or in any direction transverse to the planes of stratification, this uniformity ceases almost immediately. In that case we can scarcely ever penetrate a stratified mass for a few hundred yards without beholding a succession of extremely dissimilar rocks, some of fine, others of coarse grain, some of mechanical, others of chemical origin; some calcareous, others argillaceous, and others siliceous. These phenomena lead to the conclusion that rivers and currents have dispersed the same sediment over wide areas at one period, but at successive periods have been charged, in the same region, with very different kinds of matter. The first observers were so astonished at the vast spaces over which they were able to follow the same homogeneous rocks in a horizontal direction, that they came hastily to the opinion, that the whole globe had been environed by a succession of distinct aqueous formations, disposed round the nucleus of the planet, like the concentric coats of an onion. But, although, in fact, some formations may be continuous over districts as large as half of Europe, or even more, yet most of them either terminate wholly within narrower limits, or soon change their lithological character. Sometimes they thin out gradually, as if the supply of sediment had failed in that direction, or they come abruptly to an end, as if we had arrived at the borders of the ancient sea or lake which served as their receptacle. It no less frequently happens that they vary in mineral aspect and composition, as we pursue them horizontally. For example, we trace a limestone for a hundred miles, until it becomes more arenaceous, and finally passes into sand, or sandstone. We may then follow this sandstone, already proved by its continuity to be of the same age, throughout another district a hundred miles or more in length.


This character must be used as a criterion of the age of a formation, or of the contemporaneous origin of two deposits in distant places, under very much the same restrictions as the test of mineral composition.

First, the same fossils may be traced over wide regions, if we examine strata in the direction of their planes, although by no means for indefinite distances. Secondly, while the same fossils prevail in a particular set of strata for hundreds of miles in a horizontal direction, we seldom meet with the same remains for many fathoms, and very rarely for several hundred yards, in a vertical line, or a line transverse to the strata. This fact has now been verified in almost all parts of the globe, and has led to a conviction that at successive periods of the past, the same area of land and water has been inhabited by species of animals and plants even more distinct than those which now people the antipodes, or which now co-exist in the arctic, temperate, and tropical zones. It appears that from the remotest periods there has been ever a coming in of new organic forms, and an extinction of those which pre-existed on the earth; some species having endured for a longer, others for a shorter, time; while none have ever reappeared after once dying out. The law which has governed the succession of species, whether we adopt or reject the theory of transmutation, seems to be expressed in the verse of the poet:—

Natura il fece, e poi ruppe la stampa. Ariosto.

Nature made him, and then broke the die.

And this circumstance it is, which confers on fossils their highest value as chronological tests, giving to each of them, in the eyes of the geologist, that authority which belongs to contemporary medals in history.

The same can not be said of each peculiar variety of rock; for some of these, as red marl and red sandstone, for example, may occur at once at the top, bottom, and middle of the entire sedimentary series; exhibiting in each position so perfect an identity of mineral aspect as to be undistinguishable. Such exact repetitions, however, of the same mixtures of sediment have not often been produced, at distant periods, in precisely the same parts of the globe; and even where this has happened, we are seldom in any danger of confounding together the monuments of remote eras, when we have studied their imbedded fossils and their relative position.


It was remarked that the same species of organic remains can not be traced horizontally, or in the direction of the planes of stratifications for indefinite distances. This might have been expected from analogy; for when we inquire into the present distribution of living beings, we find that the habitable surface of the sea and land may be divided into a considerable number of distinct provinces, each peopled by a peculiar assemblage of animals and plants. In the "Principles of Geology," I have endeavoured to point out the extent and probable origin of these separate divisions; and it was shown that climate is only one of many causes on which they depend, and that difference of longitude as well as latitude is generally accompanied by a dissimilarity of indigenous species.

As different seas, therefore, and lakes are inhabited, at the same period, by different aquatic animals and plants, and as the lands adjoining these may be peopled by distinct terrestrial species, it follows that distinct fossils will be imbedded in contemporaneous deposits. If it were otherwise— if the same species abounded in every climate, or in every part of the globe where, so far as we can discover, a corresponding temperature and other conditions favourable to their existence are found— the identification of mineral masses of the same age, by means of their included organic contents, would be a matter of still greater certainty.

Nevertheless, the extent of some single zoological provinces, especially those of marine animals, is very great; and our geological researches have proved that the same laws prevailed at remote periods; for the fossils are often identical throughout wide spaces, and in detached deposits, consisting of rocks varying entirely in their mineral nature.

The doctrine here laid down will be more readily understood, if we reflect on what is now going on in the Mediterranean. That entire sea may be considered as one zoological province; for although certain species of testacea and zoophytes may be very local, and each region has probably some species peculiar to it, still a considerable number are common to the whole Mediterranean. If, therefore, at some future period, the bed of this inland sea should be converted into land, the geologist might be enabled, by reference to organic remains, to prove the contemporaneous origin of various mineral masses scattered over a space equal in area to half of Europe.

Deposits, for example, are well known to be now in progress in this sea in the deltas of the Po, Rhone, Nile, and other rivers, which differ as greatly from each other in the nature of their sediment as does the composition of the mountains which their drain. There are also other quarters of the Mediterranean, as off the coast of Campania, or near the base of Etna, in Sicily, or in the Grecian Archipelago, where another class of rocks is now forming; where showers of volcanic ashes occasionally fall into the sea, and streams of lava overflow its bottom; and where, in the intervals between volcanic eruptions, beds of sand and clay are frequently derived from the waste of cliffs, or the turbid waters of rivers. Limestones, moreover, such as the Italian travertins, are here and there precipitated from the waters of mineral springs, some of which rise up from the bottom of the sea. In all these detached formations, so diversified in their lithological characters, the remains of the same shells, corals, crustacea, and fish are becoming inclosed; or, at least, a sufficient number must be common to the different localities to enable the zoologist to refer them all to one contemporaneous assemblage of species.

There are, however, certain combinations of geographical circumstances which cause distinct provinces of animals and plants to be separated from each other by very narrow limits; and hence it must happen that strata will be sometimes formed in contiguous regions, differing widely both in mineral contents and organic remains. Thus, for example, the testacea, zoophytes, and fish of the Red Sea are, as a group, extremely distinct from those inhabiting the adjoining parts of the Mediterranean, although the two seas are separated only by the narrow isthmus of Suez. Calcareous formations have accumulated on a great scale in the Red Sea in modern times, and fossil shells of existing species are well preserved therein; and we know that at the mouth of the Nile large deposits of mud are amassed, including the remains of Mediterranean species. It follows, therefore, that if at some future period the bed of the Red Sea should be laid dry, the geologist might experience great difficulties in endeavouring to ascertain the relative age of these formations, which, although dissimilar both in organic and mineral characters, were of synchronous origin.

But, on the other hand, we must not forget that the north-western shores of the Arabian Gulf, the plains of Egypt, and the Isthmus of Suez, are all parts of one province of TERRESTRIAL species. Small streams, therefore, occasional land- floods, and those winds which drift clouds of sand along the deserts, might carry down into the Red Sea the same shells of fluviatile and land testacea which the Nile is sweeping into its delta, together with some remains of terrestrial plants and the bones of quadrupeds, whereby the groups of strata before alluded to might, notwithstanding the discrepancy of their mineral composition and MARINE organic fossils, be shown to have belonged to the same epoch.

Yet, while rivers may thus carry down the same fluviatile and terrestrial spoils into two or more seas inhabited by different marine species, it will much more frequently happen that the coexistence of terrestrial species of distinct zoological and botanical provinces will be proved by the identity of the marine beings which inhabited the intervening space. Thus, for example, the land quadrupeds and shells of the valley of the Mississippi, of central America, and of the West India islands differ very considerably, yet their remains are all washed down by rivers flowing from these three zoological provinces into the Gulf of Mexico.

In some parts of the globe, at the present period, the line of demarkation between distinct provinces of animals and plants is not very strongly marked, especially where the change is determined by temperature, as it is in seas extending from the temperate to the tropical zone, or from the temperate to the arctic regions. Here a gradual passage takes place from one set of species to another. In like manner the geologist, in studying particular formations of remote periods, has sometimes been able to trace the gradation from one ancient province to another, by observing carefully the fossils of all the intermediate places. His success in thus acquiring a knowledge of the zoological or botanical geography of very distant eras has been mainly owing to this circumstance, that the mineral character has no tendency to be affected by climate. A large river may convey yellow or red mud into some part of the ocean, where it may be dispersed by a current over an area several hundred leagues in length, so as to pass from the tropics into the temperate zone. If the bottom of the sea be afterwards upraised, the organic remains imbedded in such yellow or red strata may indicate the different animals or plants which once inhabited at the same time the temperate and equatorial regions.

It may be true, as a general rule, that groups of the same species of animals and plants may extend over wider areas than deposits of homogeneous composition; and if so, palaeontological characters will be of more importance in geological classification than the test of mineral composition; but it is idle to discuss the relative value of these tests, as the aid of both is indispensable, and it fortunately happens, that where the one criterion fails, we can often avail ourselves of the other.


It was stated, that proof may sometimes be obtained of the relative date of two formations by fragments of an older rock being included in a newer one. This evidence may sometimes be of great use, where a geologist is at a loss to determine the relative age of two formations from want of clear sections exhibiting their true order of position, or because the strata of each group are vertical. In such cases we sometimes discover that the more modern rock has been in part derived from the degradation of the older. Thus, for example, we may find chalk in one part of a country, and in another strata of clay, sand, and pebbles. If some of these pebbles consist of that peculiar flint, of which layers more or less continuous are characteristic of the chalk, and which include fossil shells, sponges, and foraminifera of cretaceous species, we may confidently infer that the chalk was the oldest of the two formations.


The number of groups into which the fossiliferous strata may be separated are more or less numerous, according to the views of classification which different geologists entertain; but when we have adopted a certain system of arrangement, we immediately find that a few only of the entire series of groups occur one upon the other in any single section or district.

(FIGURE 84. Seven fossiliferous groups.)

The thinning out of individual strata was before described (Chapter 2). But let the diagram (Figure 84) represent seven fossiliferous groups, instead of as many strata. It will then be seen that in the middle all the superimposed formations are present; but in consequence of some of them thinning out, No. 2 and No. 5 are absent at one extremity of the section, and No. 4 at the other.

(FIGURE 85. Section South of Bristol (A.C. Ramsay.) Dundry Hill. Length of section 4 miles. a-b. Level of the sea. 1. Inferior Oolite. 2. Lias. 3. New Red Sandstone. 4. Dolomitic or magnesian conglomerate. 5. Upper coal-measures (shales, etc.) 6. Pennant rock (sandstone.) 7. Lower coal-measures (shales, etc.) 8. Carboniferous or mountain limestone. 9. Old Red Sandstone.)

In another diagram (Figure 85), a real section of the geological formations in the neighbourhood of Bristol and the Mendip Hills is presented to the reader, as laid down on a true scale by Professor Ramsay, where the newer groups 1, 2, 3, 4 rest unconformably on the formations 5, 6, 7 and 8. At the southern end of the line of section we meet with the beds No. 3 (the New Red Sandstone) resting immediately on Nos. 7 and 8, while farther north as at Dundry Hill in Somersetshire, we behold eight groups superimposed one upon the other, comprising all the strata from the inferior Oolite, No. 1, to the coal and carboniferous limestone. The limited horizontal extension of the groups 1 and 2 is owing to denudation, as these formations end abruptly, and have left outlying patches to attest the fact of their having originally covered a much wider area.

In order, therefore, to establish a chronological succession of fossiliferous groups, a geologist must begin with a single section in which several sets of strata lie one upon the other. He must then trace these formations, by attention to their mineral character and fossils, continuously, as far as possible, from the starting-point. As often as he meets with new groups, he must ascertain by superposition their age relatively to those first examined, and thus learn how to intercalate them in a tabular arrangement of the whole.

By this means the German, French, and English geologists have determined the succession of strata throughout a great part of Europe, and have adopted pretty generally the following groups, almost all of which have their representatives in the British Islands.











































1. RECENT. Shells and mammalia, all of living species.

BRITISH. Clyde marine strata, with canoes (Chapter 10.)

FOREIGN. Danish kitchen middens (Chapter 10.) Lacustrine mud, with remains of Swiss lake-dwellings (Chapter 10.) Marine strata inclosing Temple of Serapis, at Puzzuoli (Chapter 10.)

2. POST-PLIOCENE. Shells, recent mammalia in part extinct.

BRITISH. Loam of Brixham cave, with flint implements and bones of extinct and living quadrupeds. (Chapter 10.) Drift near Salisbury, with bones of mammoth, Spermophilus, and stone implements. (Chapter 10.) Glacial drift of Scotland, with marine shells and remains of mammoth. (Chapter 11.) Erratics of Pagham and Selsey Bill. (Chapter 11.) Glacial drift of Wales, with marine fossil shells, about 1400 feet high, on Moel Tryfaen. (Chapter 11.)

FOREIGN. Dordogne caves of the reindeer period. (Chapter 10.) Older valley-gravels of Amiens, with flint implements and bones of extinct mammalia. (Chapter 10.) Loess of Rhine. (Chapter 10.) Ancient Nile-mud forming river-terraces. (Chapter 10.) Loam and breccia of Liege caverns, with human remains. (Chapter 10.) Australian cave breccias, with bones of extinct marsupials. (Chapter 10.) Glacial drift of Northern Europe. (Chapters 11 and 12.)



3. NEWER PLIOCENE. The shells almost all of living species.

BRITISH. Bridlington beds, marine Arctic fauna. (Chapter 13.) Glacial boulder formation of Norfolk cliffs. (Chapter 13.) Forest-bed of Norfolk cliffs, with bones of Elephas meridionalis, etc. (Chapter 13.) Chillesford and Aldeby beds, with marine shells, chiefly Arctic. (Chapter 13.) Norwich Crag. (Chapter 13.)

FOREIGN. Eastern base of Mount Etna, with marine shells. (Chapter 13.) Sicilian calcareous and tufaceous strata. (Chapter 13.) Lacustrine strata of Upper Val d'Arno. (Chapter 13.) Madeira leaf-bed and land-shells. (Chapter 29.)

4. OLDER PLIOCENE. Extinct species of shells forming a large minority.

BRITISH. Red crag of Suffolk, marine shells, some of northern forms. (Chapter 13.) White or coralline crag of Suffolk. (Chapter 13.)

FOREIGN. Antwerp crag. (Chapter 13.) Subapennine marls and sands. (Chapter 13.)


5. UPPER MIOCENE. Majority of the shells extinct.

BRITISH. Wanting.

FOREIGN. faluns of Touraine (Chapter 14.) faluns, proper, of Bordeaux. (Chapter 14.) Fresh-water strata of Gers. (Chapter 14.) Swiss Oeningen beds, rich in plants and insects. (Chapter 14.) Marine Molasse, Switzerland. (Chapter 14.) Bolderberg beds of Belgium. (Chapter 14.) Vienna basin. (Chapter 14.) Beds of the Superga, near Turin. (Chapter 14.) Deposit at Pikerme, near Athens. (Chapter 14.) Strata of the Siwalik hills, India. (Chapter 14.) Marine strata of the Atlantic border in the United States. (Chapter 14.) Volcanic tuff and limestone of Madeira, the Canaries, and the Azores. (Chapter 30.)

6. LOWER MIOCENE. Nearly all the shells extinct.

BRITISH. Hempstead beds, marine and fresh-water strata. (Chapter 15.) Lignites and clays of Bovey Tracey. (Chapter 15.) Isle of Mull leaf-bed, volcanic tuff. (Chapter 15.)

FOREIGN. Calcaire de la Beauce, etc. (Chapter 15.) Gres de Fontainebleau. (Chapter 15.) Lacustrine strata of the Limagne d'Auvergne, and the Cantal. (Chapter 15.) Mayence basin. (Chapter 15.) Radaboj beds of Croatia. (Chapter 15.) Brown coal of Germany. (Chapter 15.) Lower Molasse of Switzerland, fresh-water and brackish. (Chapter 15.) Rupelmonde, Kleynspawen, and Tongrian beds of Belgium. (Chapter 15.) Nebraska beds, United States. (Chapter 15.) Lower Miocene beds of Italy. (Chapter 15.) Miocene flora of North Greenland. (Chapter 15.)

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