Field of Science

Gotta Catch 'Em All - A history of collecting rocks and minerals

 – Part I.: Minerals as Medicine

The discovery of fossils in graves and at archaeological digs suggest that humans already in prehistoric times collected unusual shaped rocks or minerals. The why of such a behavior is unknown, maybe the rocks were seen as talisman or simply appreciated for their beauty.

The first written descriptions or minerals and rocks and why collect them date back to Ancient Egypt. Minerals were used for cosmetic purpose but also for medical use and therefore collected in the field. To pass the knowledge from one scholar to the next also the first catalogs of minerals were compiled. 

In Egypt metal-sulfide minerals like galena, pyrolusite, magnetite and stibnite were pulverized and used to create "kohl" or “kajal”, a black color used as makeup for the eyes. The black maybe also sheltered the eye from the blinding desert sun. Green makeup was made from minerals like malachite and chrysocolla. Malachite was also a popular ingredient for medicine, believed to cure - as some preserved medical scrolls describe - diseases of the abdomen and dental problems. The name malachite was given by the Greek to this mineral, as its color resembles the color of the malva-fruit or „malache“. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder describes in his „Naturalis historia“ the powder „molochotis“ used to clean wounds. As malachite contains copper and copper acts as disinfectant the described curative property maybe is based on real observations.
Fig.1. Even today minerals play an important role in alternative medicine. Some minerals derive also the name from supposed similarities to human organs or curative powers, so is hematite known also as blood stone, after its red streak. Hematite rose from Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Also, or maybe especially, Assyrian and Babylonian texts contain description of the magic-medical powers of minerals. At the times it was believed that diseases were caused by ghosts and spirits. Minerals, like lapis-lazuli, hematite and native copper were used as talismans to fend off the evil influences, along many other minerals which old names are nowadays forgotten. More rarely minerals were pulverized and used in lotions to be applied on the body.
According to Indian sources dating to the thirteenth century, but based on far older believes, diamonds were used as pulverized medicine against impotence and to increase longevity, aquamarine cured fever and topaz was used against skin diseases. Some of the supposed powers of minerals still play in the modern Ayurveda medicine a role.
Fig.2. The beauty of diversity - blue aquamarine, black tourmaline, white feldspar and colorless quartz, Pakistan.

According to traditional Chinese medicine diseases were caused by an imbalance of energy in the body. Geologic materials could help to restore the balance by controlling the flow of the supposed life-force. Mud and clay was used to cure skin diseases (there is some truth in this, as peat or fango baths are still popular), as were used minerals, rocks, metals and salts. Most famous is the use of “dragon bones” in Chinese remedies - pulverized bones of real, even if extinct animals - many fossil species were described from such material recovered in traditional apothecaries.
Islamic medical texts show a great influence of Greek medicine. Fossils and precious gemstones were used for tonics to cure or strengthen the inner organs. The Islamic scholars will preserve the knowledge after the demise of the Roman empire and medieval physician will later adopt many of the cures as described in islamic texts. 

During the middle ages many books dedicated to rocks and minerals will be written and many names used for the minerals could be recognized also by a modern mineralogist. However still minerals are classified by their supposed curative and magic properties and still for a long time there are no real mineral-collections created for the purpose to study the crystals. This will dramatically change in the late middle ages with the creation of the first Wunderkammern – the chambers of wonders.

To be continued...
DUFFIN, C.J. (2013): Lithotherapeutical research sources from antiquity to the mid-eighteenth century. In: Duffin, C. J., Moody, R. T. J. & Gardner-Thorpe, C. (eds): A History of Geology and Medicine. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 375: 7–43

Forensic Geology Provides Tantalizing Clues About The Fate Of Skyjacker D.B. Cooper

It was the first “successful” crime of its kind in the U.S. – hijacking an airplane for ransom – and after more than 45 years it is still unsolved. But forensic geology has provided some clues as to what may happened to the hijacker known only as D.B.Cooper. Read more...

Scrooge McDuck and his geological treasures

Scrooge McDuck, today famous as the richest duck in the world, was born into a poor family of 19th century Glasgow and during a lifetime of adventures he found many geological treasures and made his first fortune with copper and gold – or so imagines Keno Don Hugo Rosa, American comic book author, in a successful series of 12 comic book stories published in 1992-96.  Don Rosa did quite some background research for the series. Scrooge meets real-life based characters or witnessed historic events, like the eruption of the Krakatoa in 1883, and there is also some geology or references to precious gemstones to be found.

In the story “Dreamtime Duck of the Never-Never” Scrooge, yet at the beginning of his career, finds a dreamtime opal in Australia.
He leaves the for the Aborigines sacred relict untouched. Australia is indeed famous for its opals, a noble variety of quartz.
Another sacred crystal reveals to Scrooge, that he should travel into the north, where he will finally make a fortune.
During his travels in  the U.S. Scrooge is taught some basic geology by the former prospector Howard Rockerduck when searching for copper in Montana and he temporarily becomes owner of the Anaconda copper mine.

August 1896, gold was discovered in Klondike, found at Bonanza Creek, Alaska by George Carmack. The news will trigger the last great gold-rush in Klondike. In the stories "King of the Klondike", "The Prisoner of White Agony Creek" and "Hearts of the Yukon" we meet Scrooge, after leaving Australia, as a prospector participating to the gold-rush of 1896-97. The gold of the Yukon is found as dust in ancient fluvial sediments – referred as muck by the miners -  as correctly depicted in the comic. Scrooge this time is successful, even finding a goose-egg big gold nugget.

In search of more gold, diamonds and other valuable gemstones he travels the world for years to come -

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold
(“The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert W. Service)

In Russia he is informed of the existence of a gigantic striped ruby, finally finding the lost gemstone. 

There are indeed rubies with a phenomenon called asterism. Such star stones display a luminous star-like figure or stripes when seen in light. This optical effects happens due twinning in crystals, small tubular cavities or when fine fibers of another mineral grow into a larger crystal. It's a very rare effect in rubies and for a time this gemstone is Scrooge's greatest treasure.

In one of the last comic stripes finally Scrooge McDuck achieves the goal of a lifetime – he is the richest duck in the world!!! - proving the ancient prophecy of the clan McDuck as true - "Fortuna favet fortibus."

How The Geology Of Mountains Made America Great

The story of the Appalachians started almost half a billion years ago. The first British colonialists arrived to North America just 400 years ago and yet both events are connected and shaped the history of the United States. Without a series of orogenic cycles 490-300 million years ago, caused by the continental collision assembling the super-continent Pangaea and forming the geological roots of the Appalachians, maybe today there would be the United States of Canada, bordering to the south with the Spanish-American Empire.

The first British colonialists arrived to America in 1607 and were confined by the mountains to the Atlantic coastal plains. The parallel north-south trending ridges of the Appalachians, formed by tilted and folded layers, were a difficult terrain, not suited for permanent settlements and of no use to the first farmers. 

Fig.1. Geological Map of Pennsylvania, published in 1858, showing the north-south trending ridges of the Appalachians mountains (source).

Only the French, settling from the North (territory later to become Canada), claimed the Appalachians, establishing a network of outposts for trading fur in the mountains. In the south Florida and the Great Plains were claimed by the Spanish crown as New Spain. 

It seemed that the British were surrounded by both natural as political opponents. However the isolation soon provided decisive. The plains in the Great Appalachian Valley in eastern Pennsylvania provided fertile ground and the population of the colonies grow over time, unnoticed by the French and Spanish. Soon the British expanded westwards in search of new land. This led to a conflict between England and France above the control of the few gaps and mountain passes in the Appalachians. The English colonists were far more numerous and better supplied than the French, having direct access to the sea. The rugged, poorly accessible terrain of the Appalachians proved difficult to defend by the French and allied Indians and were eventually lost to the expanding British colonies.
After the end of the French-American War the English crown wanted to limit the colonization and new settlements to the area of the Appalachians, hoping so to avoid further conflicts with the remaining French and Spanish territories. However the unexpected result was a resentment among the British settlers in America. Colonialists became convinced that the crown didn´t care for the political future of the successful expanding colonies. Among other factors, this resentment will contribute to the later Revolutionary War, where the American colonies will declare their independence, leading in the end to the foundation of the United States of America.
ALESHIRE, P. (2008): The Extreme Earth - Mountains. Chelsea House Publishers: 144

An advice for the prospecting geologist from 1731 - observe the water

The miner needs in his art to have the most experience, so that he knows the place, the mountain or the hill, the valley or the field, that can be mined with success, and to avoid to dig were nothing can be gained.
from Agricola, "Zwölf Bücher vom Berg- und Hüttenwesen", I. Buch (1549)

Georg Grandtegger was a mine inspector in the Prettauer mine (Tyrol) who published in 1731 a field guide to find ore. Some of his suggestions may be useful even today, so he writes:
"The water of a spring must be tasted for the dissolved substances in it"
It is true that minerals like salt, sulfur and some metallic ores are water-soluble and can alter the taste and smell of water. Water saturated with metals can also precipitate new minerals (mostly oxides and hydroxides) in a river, like reddish-brown sediments when saturated with iron or greenish crusts when saturated with copper.
So Grandtegger continues:

"The brand [a term referring to color-alteration of the rock] comes from an ore along the creek. Follow it as long as you see it, then you will find the ore.”
"If you find in fountains [read springs], feed by the mountain, many reddish, bluish or black stones, or even colored green, even if the rocks itself have no ore, so flows the water out from veins of ore."
Fig.1. A spring, the mud around is colored by iron-oxides and -hydroxides, a clue that in the underground there is ore-rich schist to be found.

Grandtegger correctly suggest that a prospecting geologist should observe carefully if rocks are colored by precipitations of metals in a river. If so the geologist can follow the river until the spring. The source of the dissolved metals will likely to be found here in the underground. 

Fig.2. The reddish colors of the pebbles in this creek suggest the presence of iron and copper. Sometimes even the name of certain localities can help the prospecting geologist, like here, as this small creek is found in the “red valley”.

A last important observation, as dissolved copper is poisonous for animals and plants, rivers flowing in copper-rich rocks will likely show a diminished presence of insects and fish – so it may be a good idea to ask local fishermen about spots were they don´t get to catch anything, it may be the right spot for the geologist.