1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Archean System

ARCHEAN SYSTEM (from ἀρχή, beginning), in geology. Below the lowest distinctly fossiliferous strata, that is, below those Cambrian rocks which bear the Olenellus fauna, there lies a great mass of stratified, metamorphic and igneous rock, to which the non-committal epithet “pre-Cambrian” is often applied; and indeed in not a few instances this general term is sufficiently precise for the present state of our knowledge. Nevertheless there are large tracts, both in the Old World and in the New, in which a subdivision of this assemblage of ancient rocks is not only possible but desirable. It is quite clear in certain regions that there is a lowermost group with a prevailing granitoid, gneissic and schistose facies, mainly of igneous origin, above which there are one or several groups bearing a distinctly sedimentary aspect. It is to this lowermost gneissic group that the term “Archean” may be conveniently limited.

Thus, while the name “pre-Cambrian” may be used to indicate all these very old rocks whenever there is still any difficulty in subdividing them further, it is an advantage to have a special appellation for the oldest group where this can be distinguished.

It must be pointed out that the term “Archean” has been used as a synonym for pre-Cambrian; and that the expressions Azoic (from α-, privative; ζωή, life), Eozoic (from ἠὠς, dawn), and Fundamental Complex, have been employed in somewhat the same sense. Archeozoic has been proposed by American writers to apply to the lowest pre-Cambrian rocks with the same significance as “Archean” in the restricted sense employed here; but it is perhaps safer to avoid any reference to the supposed stage of life development where all direct evidence is non-existent. The so-called “Azoic” rocks have already been made to yield evidence of life, and there is no reason to presuppose the impossibility of finding other records of still earlier organisms.

The prevailing rocks of the Archean system are igneous, with metamorphosed varieties of the same; sedimentary rocks, distinctly recognizable as such, are scarce, though highly metamorphosed rocks supposed to be sediments, in some regions, take an important place.

There are several features which are peculiarly characteristic of the Archean rocks:—(1) the extraordinary complexity of the assemblage of igneous materials; (2) the extreme metamorphism and deformation which nearly all the rocks have suffered; and (3) the inextricable intermixture of igneous rocks with those for which a sedimentary origin is postulated. Wherever the Archean rocks have been closely examined two great groups of rocks are distinguishable, an older, schistose group and a younger, granitoid and gneissic group. For many years the latter was supposed to be the older, hence the epithets “primitive” or “fundamental” were applied to it. Now, however, it has been shown, both in Europe and in North America, that in certain regions a schistose series is penetrated by a gneissose series and when this occurs the schists must be the older. But bearing in mind the difficulties of interpretation, it is not at all unreasonable to assume that there may yet be regions where the gneissose rocks are the oldest; for where no schistose series is present there may be no criterion for estimating the age of the granites and gneisses. The exceedingly great difficulties which lie in the way of every attempt to unravel the history of an Archean rock-complex cannot be too forcibly emphasized; for to be able to demonstrate the order of events and succession of rocks we should at least know whether we are dealing with sediments, flows of volcanic material, or intrusions, yet in many instances this cannot be done. In some areas the gradual passage of highly foliated and metamorphosed schists may be traced into comparatively unaltered arkoses, greywackes, conglomerates; or into volcanic lava-flows, pyro-clastic rocks or dikes; or again through a gneissose rock into a granite or a gabbro; but the districts wherein these relationships have been thoroughly worked out are very few.

This much may be said, that where the Archean system has been most carefully studied, there appears to be (1) a schistose series, of itself by no means simple but containing the foliated equivalents of sedimentary and igneous rocks; into this series a gneissose group (2) has been intruded in the form of batholites, great sheets and sills with accompanying intrusional prolongations into the schists; subsequently, into the gneisses and schists, after they had been further deformed, sheared and foliated, another set (3) of dikes or thin sheet-like intrusions penetrated. All this, namely, the formation of sediments, the outpouring of volcanic rocks, their repeated deformation by powerful dynamic agencies and then their penetration by dikes and sheets had been completed and erosion had been at work upon the hardened and exposed rocks, before the earliest pre-Cambrian sediment was deposited.

There has been much premature speculation as to the nature and origin of these very ancient rocks. The prevalence of regular foliation with layers of different mineral composition, producing a close resemblance to bedding, has led some to imagine that the gneisses and schists were themselves the product of the primeval oceans, a supposition that is no longer worthy of further discussion. Others have supposed that the gneisses were largely produced by the resorption and fusion of older sediments in the molten interior of the earth; there is no evidence that this has taken place upon an extended scale, though there is reason to believe that something of this kind has happened in places, and there is in the hypothesis nothing radically untenable. In one way the sedimentary schists have undoubtedly been incorporated within the gneissose mass, namely, by the extremely thorough and intimate penetration of the former by the latter along planes of foliation; and when a complex mass such as this has been further sheared and metamorphosed, a uniform gneiss appears to result from the intermixture.

A not uncommon cause of the apparently bedded arrangement of layers of different mineralogical composition may be traced to the original differentiation of the granitoid magma into different mineral-sheets. When these mineralogically different layers were forced into other rocks, sometimes before the complete consolidation of the former and sometimes subsequent to it, in the generally metamorphosed condition of the whole, it is easy to see a superficial resemblance to bedding.

The Archean rocks have frequently been spoken of as the original crust of the earth; but even granting a cooling molten globe with a first-formed stony surface, it is tolerably clear that such a crust has nowhere yet been found, nor is it ever likely to be discovered. The very earliest recognizable sediments are the result of the destruction of still earlier exposures of rock; the oldest known volcanic rocks were poured upon a surface we can no longer distinguish, and as for the great granitoid masses, they could only have been formed under the pressure of superincumbent masses of material. The earliest known sediments must have been deep in the zones of shearing and rock flowage before the first pre-Cambrian denudation. The time required for these changes is difficult to conceive.

As regards the life of the Archean, or, as some call it, the “Archeozoic” period, we know nothing. The presence of carbonaceous shale and graphitic schists as well as of the altered sedimentary iron ores has been taken as indicative of vegetable life. Similarly, the occurrence of limestones suggests the existence of organic activity, but direct evidence is wanting. Much interest naturally attaches to this remote period, and when Sir William E. Logan in 1854 found the foraminifera-like Eozoon Canadense, high hopes of further discoveries were entertained, but the inorganic nature of this structure has since been clearly proved.

Distribution.—It is generally assumed that the Archean rocks underlie all the younger formations over the whole globe, and presumably this is the only system that does so. Naturally, the area of its outcrop is limited, for, directly or indirectly, all the younger rock groups must rest upon it.

It has been estimated that Archean rocks appear at the surface over one-fifth of the land area (omitting coverings of superficial drifts). This estimate is no more than the roughest approximation, and is liable at any time to revision as our knowledge of little-known regions is increased. It must ever be borne in mind that the presence of a gneissose or schistose complex does not in itself imply the Archean age of such a set of rocks. Local manifestations of a similar petrological facies may and do appear which are of vastly inferior geological age; and unless there is unequivocal evidence that such rocks lie beneath the oldest fossil-bearing strata, there can be no absolute certainty as to their antiquity. It is more than likely that certain occurrences of gneiss and schist, at present regarded as Archean, may prove on fuller examination to be metamorphosed representatives of younger periods.

Britain.—The most important exposure of Archean rocks in Britain is in the north-west of Scotland, where they form the mainland in Sutherland and Ross-shire, and appear also in the outer Hebrides. Their great development in the isle of Lewis has given rise to the term “Lewisian” (Hebridean), by which the gneisses of this region are now generally known. The Lewisian series comprises two great groups of rocks, (1) the so-called “fundamental complex,” an assemblage of acid, basic and intermediate irruptive rocks, associated together in a complex of extraordinary intricacy, and (2) a series of dikes, which like the rocks they traverse, show every gradation from ultra-basic to ultra-acid types. But the above bald statement conveys no idea of the complexity of the series, for before the “fundamental complex” had been pierced by the later dike system it had been subjected to severe dynamo-metamorphism and many of the massive rocks had been folded, thrust and sheared, and a very general state of foliation had been produced. Nor was this all, for after the intrusion of the dikes, great movements brought about vertical dislocations, and thrust planes, which traversed the rocks at all angles, accompanied by still further internal shearing and superinduced foliation.

In the valley of Loch Maree and thence south-westward into Glenelg, a series of mica-schists, quartz-schists, saccharoid limestones and graphitic schists has been regarded as a group of sedimentary origin through which the Lewisian rocks have been irrupted.

In England several small masses of gneiss, notably at Primrose Hill on the Wrekin, Shropshire, in the Malvern hills, and on the island of Anglesey in North Wales, are supposed to correspond with the Lewisian of Scotland.

North America.—In this continent there is a great development of Archean rocks in Canada. On the eastern side it covers nearly the whole of the Labrador peninsula, and extends into Baffin Bay and possibly over much of Greenland; a broad tract unites the great lake region with Labrador, and from the same region, by way of the Mackenzie valley, a similar tract extends in a north-westerly direction to the Arctic Ocean. This northern (Canadian) area of Archean includes portions of the states of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and the Adirondack region of New York. On the western side of the continent a series of disconnected exposures of Archean rocks runs downwards in a narrow belt from Alaska to New Mexico; and on the eastern side a similar belt reaches from Newfoundland to Alabama.

Much attention is now being given to the more scattered exposures of Archean rocks, but the best-known area is the classical ground in the vicinity of Lake Superior and Lake Huron and in the Ottawa gneiss region of Canada. Some of the more important districts are the following:—

Rainy Lake district, Canada: The Archean rocks here consist of altered diorites and diabases (the lower Keewatin series) and black hornblende schists (probably altered igneous rocks), with mica gneisses which are perhaps of sedimentary origin.

The Mona and Kitichi schists; metamorphosed lava and tuffs, with serpentine and dolomite, probably derived from peridotites; there are also gneissic granites and syenites.

In the Menominee region of Michigan and Wisconsin, the Quinnesec schist series mainly consist of schistose quartz porphyry with associated gneisses.

In the Mesaba district of Minnesota the Archean consists of a complex of more or less foliated igneous rocks mostly basic in character.

The Archean of the Vermilion district of Minnesota comprises the Soudan formation, an altered sedimentary series with banded cherts, jasper and magnetite schists; the iron ores are extensively mined. At the base is a conglomerate containing pebbles from the formation below, the Ely greenstone, which is made up of altered basalts and andesites, generally in a schistose condition, but occasionally exhibiting spherulitic structures. Into these two formations a series of granites have been intruded.

Europe.—In Scandinavia, as in Scotland, the pre-Cambrian is represented by an earlier and a later series of rocks of which the former (Grundfjeldet, Urberget) may be taken to be the equivalent of the Lewisian gneisses. This assemblage of coarse red and grey banded gneisses, with associated granulites and many varieties of acid, basic and intermediate rocks in a gneissose condition, is intimately related to a highly metamorphosed sedimentary series comprising limestones, quartzites and schists, which, as in Scotland, is apparently older than the gneisses. Similar rocks occur in Sweden and Finland.

In Bavaria and Bohemia the Archean is divisible into a lower red gneiss, a comparatively simple series, called by C. W. von Gümbel the “gneiss of Bojan”; and an upper, grey gneiss with other schistose rocks, serpentine and graphitic limestone, termed by the same author the “Hercynian gneiss.”

In Brittany a gneissose and schistose igneous series lies at the base of the pre-Cambrian. The pre-Cambrian cores of the eastern and central Pyrenees, consisting of gneiss, schists and altered limestones, are presumably of Archean age.

Asia, Australia, &c.—In northern China, mica-gneisses and granite-gneisses with associated schists may be regarded as Archean. In India the system is represented by the Bundelkhand gneiss and the central older gneisses of the Himalayas. In Japan, in the Abukuma plateau, there is much granite, gneiss and schist which may be of this age. In Australia, similar rocks are recognized as Archean in South Australia and Westralia, and they are estimated to cover an area of no less than 20,000 sq. m.; in Tasmania they are well developed on the western side. Although a great area is occupied by crystalline rocks in New Zealand, the Archean age of any portion of the series is not yet satisfactorily established; the lower granites and gneisses may belong to this period. Africa contains enormous tracts of crystalline gneisses, granites and schists, and some of these are almost certainly of Archean age; but in the present state of our knowledge it is impossible to speak more exactly.

References.—A good general account of the Archean system will be found in Sir A. Geikie’s Text Book of Geology, vol. ii., 4th ed. (1903), and in T. C. Chamberlin and R. D. Salisbury’s Geology, vol. ii. (1906); these volumes contain references to all important literature.  (J. A. H.)