1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gravel

GRAVEL, or Pebble Beds, the name given to deposits of rounded, subangular, water-worn stones, mingled with finer material such as sand and clay. The word “gravel” is adapted from the O. Fr. gravele, mod. gravelle, dim. of grave, coarse sand, sea-shore, Mod. Fr. grève. The deposits are produced by the attrition of rock fragments by moving water, the waves and tides of the sea and the flow of rivers. Extensive beds of gravel are forming at the present time on many parts of the British coasts where suitable rocks are exposed to the attack of the atmosphere and of the sea waves during storms. The flint gravels of the coast of the Channel, Norfolk, &c., are excellent examples. When the sea is rough the lesser stones are washed up and down the beach by each wave, and in this way are rounded, worn down and finally reduced to sand. These gravels are constantly in movement, being urged forward by the shore currents especially during storms. Large banks of gravel may be swept away in a single night, and in this way the coast is laid bare to the erosive action of the sea. Moreover, the movement of the gravel itself wears down the subjacent rocks. Hence in many places barriers have been erected to prevent the drift of the pebbles and preserve the land, while often it has been found necessary to protect the shores by masonry or cement work. Where the pebbles are swept along to a projecting cape they may be carried onwards and form a long spit or submarine bank, which is constantly reduced in size by the currents and tides which flow across it (e.g. Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber). The Chesil Bank is the best instance in Britain of a great accumulation of pebbles constantly urged forward by storms in a definite direction. In the shallower parts of the North Sea considerable areas are covered with coarse sand and pebbles. In deeper water, however, as in the Atlantic, beyond the 100 fathom line pebbles are very rare, and those which are found are mostly erratics carried southward by floating icebergs, or volcanic rocks ejected by submarine volcanoes.

In many parts of Britain, Scandinavia and North America there are marine gravels, in every essential resembling those of the sea-shore, at levels considerably above high tide. These gravels often lie in flat-topped terraces which may be traced for great distances along the coast. They are indications that the sea at one time stood higher than it does at present, and are known to geologists as “raised beaches.” In Scotland such beaches are known 25, 50 and 100 ft. above the present shores. In exposed situations they have old shore cliffs behind them; although their deposits are mainly gravelly there is much fine sand and silt in the raised beaches of sheltered estuaries and near river mouths.

River gravels occur most commonly in the middle and upper parts of streams where the currents in times of flood are strong enough to transport fairly large stones. In deltas and the lower portions of large rivers gravel deposits are comparatively rare and indicate periods when the volume of the stream was temporarily greatly increased. In the higher torrents also, gravels are rare because transport is so effective that no considerable accumulations can form. In most countries where the drainage is of a mature type, river gravels occur in the lower parts of the courses of the rivers as banks or terraces which lie some distance above the stream level. Individual terraces usually do not persist for a long space but are represented by a series of benches at about the same altitude. These were once continuous, and have been separated by the stream cutting away the intervening portions as it deepened and broadened its channel. Terraces of this kind often occur in successive series at different heights, and the highest are the oldest because they were laid down at a time when the stream flowed at their level and mark the various stages by which the valley has been eroded. While marine terraces are nearly always horizontal, stream terraces slope downwards along the course of the river.

The extensive deposits of river gravels in many parts of England, France, Switzerland, North America, &c., would indicate that at some former time the rivers flowed in greater volume than at the present day. This is believed to be connected with the glacial epoch and the augmentation of the streams during those periods when the ice was melting away. Many changes in drainage have taken place since then; consequently wide sheets of glacial and fluvio-glacial gravel lie spread out where at present there is no stream. Often they are commingled with sand, and where there were temporary post-glacial lakes deposits of silt, brick clay and mud have been formed. These may be compared to the similar deposits now forming in Greenland, Spitzbergen and other countries which are at present in a glacial condition.

As a rule gravels consist mainly of the harder kinds of stone because these alone can resist attrition. Thus the gravels formed from chalk consist almost entirely of flint, which is so hard that the chalk is ground to powder and washed away, while the flint remains little affected. Other hard rocks such as chert, quartzite, felsite, granite, sandstone and volcanic rocks very frequently are largely represented in gravels, while coal, limestone and shale are far less common. The size of the pebbles varies from a fraction of an inch to several feet; it depends partly on the fissility of the original rocks and partly on the strength of the currents of water; coarse gravels indicate the action of powerful eroding agents. In the Tertiary systems gravels occur on many horizons, e.g. the Woolwich and Reading beds, Oldhaven beds and Bagshot beds of the Eocene of the London basin. They do not essentially differ from recent gravel deposits. But in course of time the action of percolating water assisted by pressure tends to convert gravels into firm masses of conglomerate by depositing carbonate of lime, silica and other substances in their interstices. Gravels are not usually so fossiliferous as finer deposits of the same age, partly because their porous texture enables organic remains to be dissolved away by water, and partly because shells and other fossils are comparatively fragile and would be broken up during the accumulation of the pebbles. The rock fragments in conglomerates, however, sometimes contain fossils which have not been found elsewhere. (J. S. F.)