1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Concretion

CONCRETION, in petrology, a name applied to nodular or irregularly shaped masses of various size occurring in a great variety of sedimentary rocks, differing in composition from the main mass of the rock, and in most cases obviously formed by some chemical process which ensued after the rock was deposited. As these bodies present so many variations in composition and in structure, it will conduce to clearness if some of the commonest be briefly adverted to. In sandstones there are often hard rounded lumps, which separate out when the rock is broken or weathered. They are mostly siliceous, but sometimes calcareous, and may differ very little in general appearance from the bulk of the sandstone. Through them the bedding passes uninterrupted, thus showing that they are not pebbles; often in their centres shells or fragments of plants are found. Argillaceous sandstones and flagstones very frequently contain “clay galls” or concretionary lumps richer in clay than the remainder of the rock. Nodules of pyrites and of marcasite are common in many clays, sandstones and marls. Their outer surfaces are tuberculate; internally they commonly have a radiate fibrous structure. Usually they are covered with a dark brown crust of limonite produced by weathering; occasionally imperfect crystalline faces may bound them. Not infrequently (e.g. in the Gault) these pyritous nodules contain altered fossils. In clays also siliceous and calcareous concretions are often found. They present an extraordinary variety of shapes, often grotesquely resembling figures of men or animals, fruits, &c, and have in many countries excited popular wonder, being regarded as of supernatural origin (“fairy-stones,” &c.), and used as charms.

Another type of concretion, very abundant in many clays and shales, is the “septarian nodule.” These are usually flattened disk-shaped or ovoid, often lobulate externally like the surface of a kidney. When split open they prove to be traversed by a network of cracks, which are usually filled with calcite and other minerals. These white infillings of the fissures resemble partitions; hence the name from the Latin septum, a partition. Sometimes the cracks are partly empty. They vary up to half an inch in breadth, and are best seen when the nodule is cut through with a saw. These concretions may be calcareous or may consist of carbonate of iron. The former are common in some beds of the London Clay, and were formerly used for making cement. The clay-ironstone nodules or sphaerosiderites are very abundant in some Carboniferous shales, and have served in some places as iron ores. Some of the largest specimens are 3 ft. in diameter. In the centre of these nodules fossils are often found, e.g. coprolites, pieces of plants, fish teeth and scales. Phosphatic concretions are often present in certain limestones, clays, shelly sands and marls. They occur, for example, in the Cambridge Greensand, and at the base of certain of the Pliocene beds in the east of England. In many places they have been worked, under the name of “coprolite-beds,” as sources of artificial manures. Bones of animals more or less completely mineralized are frequent in these phosphatic concretions, the commonest being fragments of extinct reptilia. Their presence points to a source for the phosphate of lime.

Another very important series of concretionary structures are the flint nodules which occur in chalk, and the patches and bands of chert which are found in limestones. Flints consist of dark-coloured cryptocrystalline silica. They weather grey or white by the removal of their more soluble portions by percolating water. Their shapes are exceedingly varied, and often they are studded with tubercules and nodosities. Sometimes they have internal cavities, and very frequently they contain shells of echinoderms, molluscs, &c., partly or entirely replaced by silica, but preserving their original forms. Chert occurs in bands and tabular masses rather than in nodules; it often replaces considerable portions of a bed of limestone (as in the Carboniferous Limestones of Ireland). Corals and other fossils frequently occur in chert, and when sliced and microscopically examined both flint and chert often show silicified foraminifera, polyzoa &c., and sponge spicules. Flints in chalk frequently lie along joints which may be vertical or may be nearly horizontal and parallel to the bedding. Hence they increase the stratified appearance of natural exposures of chalk.

It will be seen from the details given above that concretions may be calcareous, siliceous, argillaceous and phosphatic, and they may consist of carbonate or sulphide of iron. In the red clay of the deep sea bottom concretionary masses rich in manganese dioxide are being formed, and are sometimes brought up by the dredge. In clays large crystals of gypsum, having the shape of an arrow-head, are occasionally found in some numbers. They bear a considerable resemblance to some concretions, e.g. crystalline marcasite and pyrite nodules. These examples will indicate the great variety of substances which may give rise to concretionary structures.

Some concretions are amorphous, e.g. phosphatic nodules; others are cryptocrystalline, e.g. flint and chert; others finely crystalline, e.g. pyrites, sphaerosiderite; others consist of large crystals, e.g. gypsum, barytes, pyrites and marcasite. From this it is clear that the formation of concretions is not closely dependent on any single inorganic substance, or on any type of crystalline structure. Concretions seem to arise from the tendency of chemical compounds to be slowly dissolved by interstitial water, either while the deposit is unconsolidated or at a later period. Certain nuclei, present in the rock, then determine reprecipitation of these solutions, and the deposit once begun goes on till either the supply of material for growth is exhausted, or the physical character of the bed is changed by pressure and consolidation till it is no longer favourable to further accretion. The process resembles the growth of a crystal in a solution by slowly attracting to itself molecules of suitable nature from the surrounding medium. But in the majority of cases it is not the crystalline forces, or not these alone, which attract the particles. The structure of a flint, for example, shows that the material had so little tendency to crystallize that it remained permanently in cryptocrystalline or sub-crystalline state. That the concretions grew in the solid sediment is proved by the manner in which lines of bedding pass through them and not round them. This is beautifully shown by many siliceous and calcareous nodules out of recent clays. That the sediment was in a soft condition may be inferred from the purity and perfect crystalline form of some of these bodies, e.g. gypsum, pyrites, marcasite. The crystals must have pushed aside the yielding matrix as they gradually enlarged. In deep-sea dredgings concretions of phosphate of lime and manganese dioxide are frequently brought up; this shows that concretionary action operates on the sea floor in muddy sediments, which have only recently been laid down. The phosphatic nodules seem to originate around the dead bodies of fishes, and manganese incrustations frequently enclose teeth of sharks, ear-bones of whales, &c. This recalls the occurrence of fossils in septarian nodules, flints, phosphatic concretions, &c., in the older strata. Probably the decomposing organic matter partly supplied substances for the growth of the nodules (phosphates, carbonates, &c.), partly acted as reducing agents, or otherwise determined mineral precipitation in those places where organic remains were mingled with the sediment.  (J. S. F.)