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Petrography is that branch of petrology which focuses on detailed descriptions of rocks. Someone who studies petrography is called a petrographer. The mineral content and the textural relationships within the rock are described in detail. Petrographic descriptions start with the field notes at the outcrop and include megascopic description of hand specimens. However, the most important tool for the petrographer is the petrographic microscope. The detailed analysis of minerals by optical mineralogy in thin section and the micro-texture and structure are critical to understanding the origin of the rock. Electron microprobe analysis of individual grains as well as whole rock chemical analyses by atomic absorption or X-ray fluorescence are used in a modern petrographic lab. Individual mineral grains from a rock sample may also be analyzed by X-ray diffraction when optical means are insufficient. Analysis of microscopic fluid inclusions within mineral grains with a heating stage on a petrographic microscope provides clues to the temperature and pressure conditions existent during the mineral formation.



Methods of investigation

Macroscopic characters

The macroscopic characters of rocks, those visible in hand-specimens without the aid of the microscope, are very varied and difficult to describe accurately and fully. The geologist in the field depends principally on them and on a few rough chemical and physical tests; and to the practical engineer, architect and quarry-master they are all-important. Although frequently insufficient in themselves to determine the true nature of a rock, they usually serve for a preliminary classification and often give all the information which is really needed.

With a small bottle of acid to test for carbonate of lime, a knife to ascertain the hardness of rocks and minerals, and a pocket lens to magnify their structure, the field geologist is rarely at a loss to what group a rock belongs. The fine grained species are often indeterminable in this way, and the minute mineral components of all rocks can usually be ascertained only by microscopic examination. But it is easy to see that a sandstone or grit consists of more or less rounded, waterworn sand-grains and if it contains dull, weathered particles of felspar, shining scales of mica or small crystals of calcite these also rarely escape observation. Shales and clay rocks generally are soft, fine grained, often laminated and not infrequently contain minute organisms or fragments of plants. Limestones are easily marked with a knife-blade, effervesce readily with weak cold acid and often contain entire or broken shells or other fossils. The crystalline nature of a granite or basalt is obvious at a glance, and while the former contains white or pink felspar, clear vitreous quartz and glancing flakes of mica, the other will show yellow-green olivine, black augite and grey stratiated plagioclase.

Other simple tools include the blowpipe (to test the fusibility of detached crystals), the goniometer, the magnet, the magnifying glass and the specific gravity balance.[1]

Microscopic characteristics

Main article: Optical mineralogy

When dealing with unfamiliar types or with rocks so fine grained that their component minerals cannot be determined with the aid of a hand lens, a microscope is used. Characteristics observed under the microscope include colour, colour variation under plane polarised light (pleochroism, produced by the lower Nicol prism, or more recently polarising films), fracture characteristics of the grains, refractive index (in comparison to the mounting adhesive, typically Canada Balsam), and optical symmetry (birefringent or isotropic). In toto, these characteristics are sufficient to identify the mineral, and often to quite tightly estimate it's major element composition. The process of identifying minerals under the microscope is fairly subtle, but also mechanistic - it would be possible to develop an identification key that would allow a computer to do it. The more difficult and skilful part of optical petrography is identifying the interrelationships between grains and relating them to features seen in hand specimen, at outcrop, or in mapping.

Separation of components

The separation of the ingredients of a crushed rock powder from one to another in order to obtain pure samples suitable for analysis is also extensively practised. It may be effected by means of a powerful electro-magnet the strength of which can be regulated as desired. A weak magnetic field will attract magnetite, then haematite and other ores of iron. Silicates containing iron will follow in definite order and biotite, enstatite, augite, hornblende, garnet and similar ferro-magnesian minerals may be successively abstracted, at last only the colorless, non-magnetic compounds, such as muscovite, calcite, quartz and felspar, will remain. Chemical methods also are useful. A weak acid will dissolve calcite from a crushed limestone, leaving only dolomite, silicates or quartz. Hydrofluoric acid will attack felspar before quartz, and if employed with great caution will dissolve these and any glassy material in a rock powder before dissolving augite or hypersthene. Methods of separation by specific gravity have a still wider application. The simplest of these is levigation or treatment by a current of water, it is extensively employed in the mechanical analysis of soils and in the treatment of ores, but is not so successful with rocks, as their components do not as a rule differ very greatly in specific gravity.

Fluids are used which do not attack the majority of the rock-making minerals and at the same time have a high specific gravity. Solutions of potassium mercuric iodide (sp. gr. 3.196), cadmium borotungstate (sp. gr. 3.30), methylene iodide (sp. gr. 3.32), bromoform (sp. gr. 2.86), or acetylene bromide (sp. gr. 3.00) are the principal media employed. They may be diluted (with water, benzene, etc.) to any desired extent and again concentrated by evaporation. If the rock be a granite consisting of biotite (sp. gr. 3.1), muscovite (sp. gr. 2.85), quartz (sp. gr. 2.65), oligoclase (sp. gr. 2.64) and orthoclase (sp. gr. 2.56) the crushed minerals will all float in methylene iodide; on gradual dilution with benzene they will be precipitated in the order given above. Although simple in theory these methods are tedious in practice, especially as it is common for one rock-making mineral to enclose another. But expert handling of fresh and suitable rocks yields excellent results. [1]

Chemical analysis

In addition to naked-eye and microscopic investigations chemical methods of research are of the greatest practical importance to the geographer. The crushed and separated powders, obtained by the processes described above, may be analyzed and thus the chemical composition of the minerals in the rock determined qualitatively or quantitatively. The chemical testing of microscopic sections and minute grains by the help of the microscope is a very elegant and valuable means of discriminating between the mineral components of fine-grained rocks. Thus the presence of apatite in rock-sections is established by covering a bare rock-section with solution of ammonium molybdate; a turbid yellow precipitate forms over the crystals of the mineral in question (indicating the presence of phosphates). Many silicates are insoluble in acids and cannot be tested in this way, but others are partly dissolved, leaving a film of gelatinous silica which can be stained with coloring matters such as the aniline dyes (nepheline, analcite, zeolites, etc.).

Complete chemical analyses of rocks are also widely made use of and are of the first importance, especially when new species are under description. Rock analysis has of late years (largely under the influence of the chemical laboratory of the United States Geological Survey) reached a high pitch of refinement and complexity. As many as twenty or twenty-five components may be determined, but for practical purposes a knowledge of the relative proportions of silica, alumina, ferrous and ferric oxides, magnesia, lime, potash, soda and water will carry us a long way in determining the position to which a rock is to be assigned in any of the conventional classifications. A chemical analysis is in itself usually sufficient to indicate whether a rock is igneous or sedimentary and in either case to show with considerable accuracy to what subdivision of these classes it belongs. In the case of metamorphic rocks it often establishes whether the original mass was a sediment or of volcanic origin.[1]

Specific gravity

The specific gravity of rocks is determined in the usual way by means of the balance and the pycnometer. It is greatest in those rocks which contain most magnesia, iron and heavy metals, least in rocks rich in alkalis, silica and water. It diminishes with weathering, and generally those rocks which are highly crystalline have higher specific gravity than those which are wholly or partly vitreous when both have the same chemical composition. The specific gravity of the commoner rocks ranges from about 2.5 to 3.2.[1]

Archaeological applications

Petrography is used by archaeologists to identify the mineral components in pottery. This information is then usually used to tie the artifacts to geological source areas for both the clay used and the rock fragments (usually called "temper" or "aplastics") often added by potters to modify the properties of the clay. This information provides insight into how potters were selecting and using local and nonlocal resources, as well as allowing archaeologists to determine whether pottery found in a particular location was locally produced or traded from elsewhere. In turn, this kind of information (in combination with other evidence) can be used to build inferences about settlement patterns, group and individual mobility, and social contacts or trade networks. In addition, an understanding of how certain minerals are altered at specific temperatures can allow archaeological petrographers to infer aspects of the ceramic production process itself, such as minimum and maximum temperatures reached in the original firing of the pot.

Useful links

  • Atlas of Rocks, Minerals, and Textures Petrographical description of rocks and minerals


  1. ^ a b c d This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition article "Petrology", a publication now in the public domain.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Petrography". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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