Field of Science

The Toadstone

"Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."
"As You Like It" Act 2, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare (1623)

Fig.1. Bufonite as depicted in Ulisse Aldrovandi's "Musaeum Metallicum" (1648). This Bufonite seems to be some sort of concretion or possibly a Bezoar-stone.

The Bufonite / Botrax / Borax / Batrachite / Chelonite / Brontias / dragonstone or Lapis Bufonis / toadstone is a particular form of gemstone that grows in the brains of toads, most often after various toads jumped on the head of the king of the toads. Two kinds of stones exist, one is white, the other black - they differ significantly in their magic properties.
The stone must be recovered by putting the toad on a red blanket or by exposing the animal to heat - it will then regurgitate the stone, now you must quickly take it or otherwise the animal will swallow it again. Ants can also skeletonise a dead toad and expose the stone.

Fig.2. A 1497 illustration by the German botanist and physician Johannes de Cuba, depicting the extraction and use of a toadstone.

The stone protects from magic and misfortune, has healing powers for all sorts of wounds and interior pains. In the vicinity of poison its change its colour and starts to transpire a liquid.
Despite the vague descriptions that exist for this magic gemstone, "toadstones" were identified with the fossilized teeth of Lepidotus - an extinct genus of ray-finned fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods - probably due the supposed similarities of the fossil teeth to the eyes of the toad.

Fig.3. Another kind of Bufonite as depicted in Ulisse Aldrovandi's "Musaeum Metallicum" (1648), these are clearly the fossil teeth of the fish Lepidotus.

Paleoseismology of the Anatolian and Caucasus Region

"The people of Behura fled from my weapons into the mountains of Uschkiani and Banni. I surrounded part of them and killed all. The others that could flee were burned by the earth god Teischeba."
Description of the military campaign of king Argischti I in 780-756 B.C.

Turkey is characterized by two main strike-slip fault systems - the North Anatolian Fault (NAF) and the East Anatolian Fault - that in the Caucasus region merge together in a complex tectonic system dominated by compressional thrust faulting. 
Devastating earthquakes of the last decades occurred mainly along the dextral North Anatolian Fault that forms the plate boundary between the Anatolian and Eurasian plates. This is also a densely populated region with the city of Istanbul as one of the most important harbours of the Mediterranean Sea. 
May 10, 1566 the cities of Rossana and Constantinople (modern Istanbul) were hit by an earthquake that caused the collapse of buildings. Some 50 years earlier (October 10, 1509) Constantinople had been affected by an even worse disaster, killing 13.000 people. 
During the 20th century seismic activity apparently moved along the NAF from the east to the west, in 1999 two strong earthquakes hit the city of Izmit, killing 17.000 people.

In Armenia the strongest earthquake since centuries occurred December 7, 1988, it destroyed the city of Spitak and killed 25.000 people.

Fig.1. Simplified tectonic map of the Caucasus region with the locations of important earthquakes - the recent earthquake at Van, the earthquake of Spitak and the historic earthquake of Behura. Various sections of the North Anatolian Fault show a progressive younger activity from the east to the west (colour coded). According to some models this could suggest that stress is released following the fault system and that Istanbul could be hit again by a stronger earthquake in the future.

The region around Lake Van was repeatedly hit in the present and the past by strong earthquakes. Cronicles report of havoc and destruction in the 4th century and again in the 10th century, in 1976 an earthquake in the Van Province caused 4.000 victims.

One of the oldest earthquakes in the Caucasus region was inferred from historic descriptions and confirmed by geologic evidence -it dates back to more than 2.700 years. 
A French-Armenian team of paleoseismologists searching for suitable sites for their research discovered on aerial photographies the ruins of the ancient city of Behura.
Paleoseismology tries to collect evidence for earthquakes based on both archaeological as geologic proxies to improve the knowledge of the seismic history of a region. Knowing this history of a region can help to estimate the time-intervals occurring between earthquakes of a certain magnitude.
Ancient documents refer to a city located in the area around the Lake Sevan that was conquered in 780 to 756 B.C. by the great king Argischti I, the description of the siege is curious, mentioning fire, ash and clouds (send supposedly by the earth god Teischeba) helping destroying the city. Maybe this is the description of a volcanic eruption accompanied by earthquakes. Nearby the site relatively unweathered and therefore probably young lava flows coming from the volcano Porak were discovered,
In Behura the excavation of a trench revealed a complex stratigraphy of soils, a displaced wall, scree deposits and younger soils, suggesting that the city was in fact destroyed by an earthquake.


HERVÈ, P. & KARAKHANIAN, A. (2001): Der Untergand von Behura. Spektrum der Wissenschaft -Dossier 2 "Die Unruhige Erde": 31-35
JACOB, K. (2006): Istanbul - Warten auf den großen Schlag. Bild der Wissenschaft 2: 48-53

October 23, 4004: The Creation of the World

October 23, has become famous by (non)geologists as earth's birthday - largely due the brief mention in textbooks of the Irish Archbishop James Ussher's (1581-1656) work published in 1650 as the "Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti" (Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the earliest beginning of the world). Ussher presents a possible chronology of the 6.000 years old history of earth and humankind based on references in the bible and research of others scholars of the time (most influential was John Lightfoot - 1602-1675 - who published his calculations in 1644). 
For Ussher and other scholars it was important to know the age of the earth to possibly infer the time of the rapture. As for god a day is like thousand days and he needed 6 days to create the universe, the world would was created 4.000 years before Christ and last for 2.000 years after.
The exact date given by the Ussher-Lightfoot-Chronology - October 23*, 4004 B.C., at nine o'clock in the morning - has become ridiculed by scientists as the futile attempt to determinate natural facts only based on the interpretation of Bronze Age myths [* or 6 p.m. October 22, 4004 B.C. according to the Jewish calendar].
However considering the time and the purpose of the work, Ussher's attempts were not too farfetched - his conclusions were based on the information that was available at the time and served well the theological questions that they should help clarify.
Also this age was not universally and uncritically accepted- there were many earlier attempts to determinate the age of the earth and many concluded that earth was significantly older than known human history. Also during and shortly after Ussher there were serious doubts on the veracity of the 6.000 years time interval, manly due the observation in nature and outcrops.
For example in the book "A Tour through Sicily and Malta" the stratigraphic research by the Sicilian Canon Giuseppe Recupero (1720-1778) on the slopes of Mount Etna is mentioned. Recupero discovered a succession of seven lava flows, he dated the youngest to the second Punic War (218 to 201 B.C.) and therefore the oldest could be 7x2.000 years =14.000 years old.
Finally on March 17, 1785 a man will propose a new modern approach - "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end."

Fig.1. llustration from Thomas Burnet´s book "The Sacred Theory of the Earth", published in 1684.

A geologist riddle #24

What is this strange rock supposed to be and most important: from where it is supposed to come?

Dinosaurs enter the Atomic Age

Monsters in monster movies - they are the antagonist of our hero, the threat to society, the key element of the movie - we despise and love them at the same time.

The monster movie can be created by human folly - an experiment gone wrong, the destruction or the violation of an isolated habitat - or on purpose as a biological weapon.
The monsters can came from space: actively searching habitable planets or hosts for its lifecycle or it was brought back as sample or unwillingly from a space mission.
This last origin can be mixed or being replaced by the explanation that the monsters came from a different time period, usually the past - trough a time warp or surviving entrapped in ice, mud or on a lost island.

All these different births of monsters reflect the technology and the fear by society of this technology at the time. A classic example of this correlation is the decade of 1950 to 1960. "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is considered the first movie to introduce the atomic bomb as possibility to create monsters - that will go wild. 

Fig.1. The "Rhedosaurus" - first evil dinosaur-star?

The movie was produced by the small independent company "Mutual Pictures", Warner Brothers recognized the potential and released it in 1953, 8 years after the first U.S. atomic bombs and 4 years after the first Soviet atomic test, just at the beginning of the arm race between the two superpowers. First test previously of 1948 and released footage of the test sites at the lagoons of Bikini had already showed to the public the devastating effects of the heat and the radiation of an atomic blast on living animals - the movie is based on and also exploits this fear. 


In the movie during "Operation Experiment" (how inventive by the scriptwriters...) an atomic bomb will be detonated in the atmosphere over the Arctic, the producers used real footage of real nuclear blasts- a common trick to save costs, but maybe also to emphasize the "reality" of the story. The movie introduces the classic scientists and their pseudoscientific techno-babble, an element that will become standard until modern movies.
"20,000 Fathoms" is also one of the first movies to introduce animals/dinosaurs as the main monster - breaking with the tradition of human-like creatures of the early 20th century - and inspire an entire bunch of later movies that will explain the origin of the monsters from misuse of radioactive radiation or contamination of harmless organisms. 

The "Rhedosaurus" is awakened by the nuclear blast from the arctic ice and goes on to terrorize and destroy entire cities, the military and all the weapons can´t apparently stop it.

Fig.2. Timeline of nuclear test and important movies of the monster genre, note the decade 1950-1960. "The Valley of Gwangi" in 1969 is considered an effort to revitalize the - at the time - dying genre, by introducing western elements in a classic monster story.

Strangely it is a nuclear scientist that will solve the problem - displaying the contradictory relationship of society to the atomic energy at the time - it causes problems but also can solve them. However this somehow positive message of "20,000 Fathoms" will go lost in subsequent movies, when the monsters created by the atom will only cause havoc and suffering.

Video: Footage of the animal tests codenamed "Plumbbob" (1957)  - WARNING Graphic Content!


EVANS, J.A. (1998): Celluloid Mushroom Clouds - Hollywood and the Atomic Bomb. Critical Studies in Communication and in the Cultural Industries; Westview Press: 212

Marie Tharp: The map that changed the world

"The tiny fringe of shallow sunlit waters which has been so frequently treated in books and films is entirely excluded, for in this book we are concerned only with the sunless and little-known abyss which claims over half of the planet."

Marie Tharp was born July 30, 1920 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Already at very young age she followed her father, a soil surveyor for the United States Department of Agriculture, into the field. However she also loved to read and decided to study literature at St John's College in Annapolis, but at the time women were not admitted to study there. So she went to Ohio University, where she graduated in 1943. 
The Second World War changed dramatically the situation in the United States - the nation needed highly educated replacement for the men who went into war, women now were encouraged to choose degrees also in science and technology. Marie enrolled in a petroleum geology programme, becoming so a "Petroleum Geology Girl" she graduated in geology in 1944. Afterwards she worked for a short time in the petroleum industry, however she found the work unrewarding and decided to resume her studies at Tulsa University. 
In 1948 she graduated in mathematics and found work at the Lamont Geological Laboratory of Columbia University. The atmosphere there was relaxed and friendly; also in times of Cold War money for geological projects studying the ocean floor, which results promised to be important for the war with submarines, was abundant. 
She began a prolific collaboration with geologist Bruce Charles Heezen (1924 -1977), who was specialized on the gathering of seismic and topographic data from the sea floor. As women Marie was not allowed on board of the research vessels crossing over the sea to collect profiles of the seafloor, so she started to calculate, interpret and visualize the data when Heezen was on the sea. She co-authored with Heezen a book and various papers; however her role was often neglected. Her employment despite continuous remained insecure, in certain moments the bureaucracy and financial troubles forced her to work from home. 
Between 1959 until the death of Heezen in 1977 she worked strenuously on various maps that would depict the still unknown topography of the oceanic basins - and the results were astounding. The ocean floor was not a flat plain of mud, as previously imagined, but displayed mountains, ridges and canyons, sometimes larger and deeper than any feature found on the continents. The most impressive feature however was a chain of mountains cutting in half the large basins of the oceans - Tharp and Heezen had discovered the backbone of earth, the Mid-Ocean Ridges.

Fig.1. "I was so busy making maps I let them argue,...[]" (photography published in HEEZEN & HOLLISTER 1971). Both Heezen and Tharp recognized the Mid-Ocean Ridges as spreading centres of the oceanic crust; both tended to consider this a result of an expanding globe. Marie Tharp´s cartographic accomplishments were exceptional because she overcame educational and employment barriers that limited opportunities for women of her generation. Without doubts she prepared the field for other researchers; however she will not became directly identified with the era's most revolutionary geological theory  - plate tectonics.


BARTON, C. (2002): Marie Tharp, oceanographic cartographer, and her contributions to the revolution in the Earth sciences. In OLDROYD, D.R. (ed.) The Earth Inside and Out: Some Major Contributions to Geology in the Twentieth Century. Geological Society Special Publications 192, London: 215-228
HEEZEN, B.C. & HOLLISTER, C. D. (1971): The face of the deep. Oxford Univ. Press, New York, London, and Toronto: 659

In search of Punt: The Lost Land of Gold

"Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook, and the earth was moved. I uncovered my face, and I saw that a serpent drew near…[]…his body was as overlaid with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli….[]… it was the prince of the land of Punt…"
"The Shipwrecked Sailor", 2200 B.C.

May 9, 1871 the German geologist Karl Mauch finally spotted after one year of strenuously search was he had hoped for: the impressive ruins of gigantic stone buildings - the remains of a long lost city, at least for the European explorers. The local people of the tribe of the Shona know the ruins well - in their language the buildings were called "dzimba woye" - the venerated houses, build by an ancient African civilization. Mauch however, following the racial ideas of the time, was sure that the buildings "could not possibly being built by Negroes." * He thought that he had discovered the ruins of the mythical city of Ophir, known in legends for the immeasurable wealth treasured there, and of course founded by Asian immigrants. 
The bible cites Ophir as unidentified place from which King Salomon received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks - and all this every three years. Various scholars puzzled about the exact location of this rich land, the African continent seemed to be supported by the tales of exotic animals found in Ophir, but in 1857 the German archaeologist Heinrich Ferdinand Karl Brugsch collocated Ophir on the Arabian Peninsula.
Other scientists associated Ophir with another legendary place - "Ta netjer" the land of the gods, also known by the ancient Egyptians as the land of gold - the mythical Punt.
But Punt was more than a legend - long before 2000 B.C. Egyptian Pharaohs send expeditions to Punt to recover precious metals - gold, silver and electrum, gemstones - like malachite, wood and resin. The successful expeditions were so important, such great achievements, that the Egyptians immortalized them on their temples.
In the temple of Athribis, commissioned by Ptolemaios XII, a relief shows the various and precious trees growing in Punt - apparently Punt was a lush, tropical land.
In 1858 the French archaeologist Auguste Ferdinand François Mariette interpreted a relief in the temple of Deir el-Bahari, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, as realistic depiction of an expedition to the remote and fabled land of Punt. 

Fig.1. The expedition to Punt as immortalized in the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The ships are loaded with gifts and exotic animals, (large version) image from Institute for Egyptology - University of Bern.
The reliefs show a fleet, the five ships are loaded with gold, trees and exotic animals like leopards, apes and giraffes - species associated with the African continent. In the sea the reliefs sows various fish species, zoologist identified some of them living on the coast of Africa, but also near the Arabian Peninsula. The plants that produce frankincense and Myrrh, Boswellia sp. and Commiphora myrrha, are native to the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, Yemen) and to Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Northeast Kenya).

Maybe looking at the geology the place of Punt can be traced back to Africa? Still today in Eritrea gold can be found, associated to the old metamorphic rocks of the interior plateau. The river of Nahr Al-qa-sh is known for its gold bearing sediments. Also in Ethiopia gold is associated with the proterozoic metamorphic rocks, found to the west of the Afar lowlands, where cenozoic volcanic rocks mark the Great Rift System of the African plate. The eastern part of this proterozoic basement is found on the northern coast of Somalia. The overall geology of Saudi-Arabia - especially Yemen and Oman- is characterized instead by phanerozoic sediments mostly lacking gold. 

 Fig.2. Simplified geology of north-eastern Africa and possible localization of Punt, Mersa Gawasis was an ancient Egyptian harbour.
Geology can however give us another ulterior clue to find the lost land of Punt. Along the gifts brought back from Punt were also living exotic animals, so baboons (Papio sp.) - as clearly depicted on the relief of Deir el-Bahari. In 2010 researchers analyzed hair samples from 3.000 years old mummified baboons found in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. 

Every living organism must drink water and water consists of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Both elements exist in various isotopes, atoms who differ in mass and also (slightly) in chemical properties. The oxygen isotopic signature of a particular spring can be unique and is controlled by geology and location of an aquifer. By comparing the results of the ancient hair samples with hair samples of animals living in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda and Mozambique the research concluded that most isotopic similarity can be found with animals coming from eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.

Mystery solved? Well, the isotopic signature could be identified only from one baboon and the localization is still very vague. The search of a myth continues….

*The British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson proved in 1929 that Great Zimbadwe and the civilization that build these monuments are of African origin.


BROWN, D.M. & LYNCH, J. (1995): Africa's Glorious Legacy (Lost Civilizations). Time-Life-Books: 168
FRANZ, A. (2011): Das sagenhafte Goldland Punt. Bild der wissenschaft 9(11): 68-75
HOULIHAN, P.F. (1996): The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Thames & Hudson: 237

SCHLÜTER, T. & TRAUTH, M.H. (2006): Geological Atlas of Africa - With Notes on Stratigraphy, Tectonics, Economic Geology, Geohazards and Geosites of Each Country. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg: 255

Online Resources:

(2008): Terra X - Weihrauch für den Pharao - Aufbruch nach Punt. (Accessed on 01.10.2011)