Field of Science

Accretionary Wedge #35: Giologia-Geognosie-Geology

"Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all."
Sir Winston Churchill, British politician (1874 - 1965)

Evelyn is asking on her Georneys for everyone favourite Geology Word - what better word there is than the term that describes the knowledge of the anatomy of earth itself - the Geognosie, evolved today in the better known term Geology.

It was in the 18th and 19th century that common and noble men begun to gather natural curiosities in their cabinets or museum. The displayed natural oddities and specimen were collected mostly by lucky discoverers, paid assistants or conscripted students, only in later times also noble men started to go in the field by themselves, even is such activity was considered more a necessity to gather more specimen than to explore and understand nature.
The Swiss professor of philosophy Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) was one of the first to propose to the savants of the time the necessity to gain observations and exact measurements in the field. Savants was a general term adopted simply to well educated people interested in various abilities - philosophy, art and medicine, which often encompassed natural studies. People interested and dedicated to the new emerging fields of "Natural history" and "Natural philosophy" - fields trying to describe natural phenomena and infer their (mathematical) rules -were more specifically referred as "naturalists" and "natural philosophers".
Natural philosophy encompassed all observable phenomena in nature, from the physiological reaction of the body on the summit of Mount Blanc to the rocks composing the mountain. At the time it was very roughly divided in three sub-disciplines- zoology, botany and mineralogy, still the specimen (animals, plants and mineral) approach to nature is evident.

Fig.1. James Hutton (left) and Joseph Black portrayed as "philosophers" or early "geognosts": caricature publsihed in 1787 by John Kay (Edinburgh) (From RUDWICK 2005).

A much larger approach, to the structure of earth itself, was tried by a new science emerging from geography adapted to the necessities of the mining industries to understand the underground and the position of ore-bearing rocks

In Germany the science called "Geognosie" (earth knowledge) encompassed the description and representation of the surface of earth, like geography, but widened it approach to the third dimension, hidden in the underground. This science was referred also as "mineralogical geography" or "géographie souterraine", its goals are best understandable in the Italian name "anatomia della terra" - anatomy of earth.

Fig.2. Luigi Ferdinando Marsili "On the Structures of Mountains" (1705), early geognosts mapped and developed a classification scheme for the various landscapes observed in nature, however still a theorizing part was missing (from BATTISTA 2003).

However it was an applied, descriptive art, not a science in modern sense dedicated to formulate rules or hypothesis and test them. Geognosts went in the field to map the rocks of the countryside, theirs maps and profiles were a major input to create a new, a real science researching also theories.

Fig.3. John Clerk of Eldin (1728-1812) "Whinstone Dykes´by Fairlie, Firth of Clyde", a drawing of a Cliff in Scotland made in 1786. Eldin, a passionate amateur geologist tries in this wonderful depiction to sketch the position and direction of the basaltic dykes in the underground, merging a two-dimensional map with the third dimension, the profile (found in THÜSEN 2008).

Already Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788) stressed in his "Nature's Epochs" (1778) the need to create an own geotheory to understand the structure, the sediments, the fossils and in the end the history of earth. In fact Saussure tried to adopt this approach in his natural studies. In the same year of Buffon's "Epochs" the term geology was introduced (hesitant) in the literature by the Swiss naturalist Jean-Andre de Luc in his opus "Letters on Mountains".

"I mean here by cosmology only the knowledge of the earth, and not that of the universe. In this sense, "geology" would have been the correct word, but I dare not adopt it, because it is not in common use."

Fig.4. "I a geologist", from the Notebook M, 1838, page 39 of Charles Darwin, the full phrase as follows: "I a geologist have illdefined notion of land covered with ocean, former animals, slow force cracking surface &c truly poetical."

Geology became synonymous with the "Theory of the Earth" - a part of cosmology dedicated to the description of the character of earth and maybe more important it relationships with animals, plants and finally humans.

"In now addressing my brother -geologists - and under this term I would comprehend all who take an interest in the progress of a science whose problems are inseparably interwoven with the whole study of nature - I have been influenced by the conviction that it is good for us, as workers in the same field, occasionally to pause and question ourselves as to the ultimate bearing of our investigations."
David Page (1863): "The Philosophy of Geology."

However the word geology itself has older roots, even if other meaning - in his testament and legacy written in 1603 the Italian Renaissance- naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) introduces the term "Giologia" to refer to the study of "fossilia" - the things unearthed.
Aldrovandi had tried his whole life to classify nature - to separate rocks and fossils from the animals and plants the already existing term mineralogy was not sufficient - giologia would encompass all stones, all minerals and especially the petrified organisms (he recognized some fossils as once living beings) and also rocks nobody at the time could explain found on the surface of earth, but also excavated - again an tentative approach to consider the three-dimensional structure of earth.

Fig.5. The word "La giologia" in the official version of Aldrovandi´s will (from BATTISTA 2003).

200 years later the term, theory and principles of Geology will become largely known by the work of many fulltime geologists, like for example Sir Charles Lyell.


ROSENBERG, G.D. (2009): The measure of man and landscape in the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. In Rosenberg, G.D. (ed.): The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 13-40
RUDWICK, M.J.S (2005): Bursting the limits of time - The reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London: 708
THÜSEN, J.v.d. (2008) : Schönheit und Schrecken der Vulkane - Zur Kulturgeschichte des Vulkanismus. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt: 239
VAI, B. (2003): Aldrovandi´s Will: introducing the term "Geology" in 1603. In BATTISTA, G. & CAVAZZA, W. (2003): Four Centuries of the Word geology - Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna. Minerva Edizioni: 327


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS