What’s In A Name

As someone interested in names and what they mean, I am regularly intrigued by the terms used in the building stone trade.  Often the names give an insight to place of origin.  For example, we have the world famous Carrara marble, nationally known Georgia Cherokee Marble, or locally recognized Tenino Sandstone (from Tenino, Washington).  Stone names can also convey color, such as Coral Red Granite, Black Ice Marble, and Blue Pearl, or texture, Roxbury Puddingtone, Birdseye Marble, and Tapestry Granite.

Names, however, can also mislead.  Minnesota’s Rainbow granite is a 3.5-billion-year old gneiss, which happens to be the oldest commonly used building stone in the world. (Ironically, one correctly labeled class of granites, called rapakivi, gives too much information as rapakivi is the Finnish word for crumbly.)  The other commonly mislabeled rock is limestone, often called marble, even ones such as the fossil-rich Treuchtlingen marble from Germany. 

 3.5 bya Morton gneiss aka Rainbow granite

The more fascinating stones come with a story.  The island of Chios has produced portasanta, a stone often compared to roast beef in color and texture; its name translates to holy door, a reference to its use as door jambs at St. Peter’s.  From France comes another reddish rock, Cervelatte Marble, a named derived from is similarity to sausage made in Switzerland and Germany.  Cervelatte comes from the Latin cerebrum, in reference to the brains formerly used in the sausage.


One of the world’s most famous marbles is that used in the Parthenon in Athens. Roman stone cutters knew of the white marble as Marmo Greco Fetido (fetid Greek marble) and Marmo cipolla (onion marble), because “when sawn it emits a fetid odour,” wrote Mary Winearls Porter in What Rome Was Built With: A Description of the Stones Employed in Ancient Times for its Building and Decoration.  This is not an unusual phenomenon; organic remains in the rock can disintegrate and form a sulfurous gas, which gets trapped in the crystal lattice.  Breaking the stone releases the gas.  Cutting to the chase, the British labeled their odoriferous rock Stink Stone.

The Brits also have many ancient words sprinkled into their stone names. Kentish Rag utilizes a word first used in 1272 to refer to any “sedimentary rock readily broken into thick slabs as paving” or so says the OED.  The commonly used freestone also appeared at this time, compared with sandstone, which was not used until 1668. And then there’s clunch, which sounds like a stomach ailment, but actually refers to hard layers of the chalk marl in Cambridgeshire.

My favorite name, however, comes from Brazil.  I don’t know what it means but simply like the sound of Uba Tuba.  What’s your favorite stone name?

Post Rock Country

Last blog with a connection to Mr. Obama.  Driving on I-70 across the western part of Kansas you cannot help but notice a sign welcoming you to Post Rock Country.  After wondering if you have entered some strange enclave of Celine Dion partisans, you will start noticing that fence posts along the interstate are made from stone and not from wood.  Turns out that in a land of few trees and many cattle, the best way to build a fence was to use the local limestone, a yellow-tan rock easily quarried from just below the surface.  The layer, known locally as Fencepost limestone, comes out of the ground soft and easily worked, but hardens soon after exposure. 

Post Rock Stone Fenceposts (From Kansas Geological Survey)

“Had it not been for stone fence posts, prosperity might have been a long time coming to much of north-central Kansas,” wrote Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, in Land of the Post Rock: Its Origins, History, and People.  The authors report that stone fence posts can be found in an area that covers about 200 square miles, from Hays to Salina and then extending northeast to the Nebraska border and southwest toward Dodge City.  No one knows when the first post appeared but most references point to the early 1870s, as immigrants began to move into the state.

Homesteaders put up hundreds of thousands of the posts, each of which weighed between 250 and 450 pounds.  A 160-acre-property required 360 posts and 40,000 feet of wire.  (In the 1880s barbed wire started to become popular, which helped make wire-and-post fencing much more feasible and cheaper.)  To cut the stone posts, which were generally eight to twelve inches thick—depending upon the layer quarried—masons used a plug and feather technique. 

First step was to drill a row of holes about six to eight inches apart.  Next, the masson dropped into each hole two metal, half-round shims, each bent at the top to prevent them from slipping into the hole.  Between the shims, known as feathers, he placed a metal wedge, the plug.  To separate the rock, he pounded the plugs in succession until the rock split.

Plug and feather stone splitting (Photo from Kansas Geological Survey)

Fencepost limestone forms the top layer of the Greenhorn Limestone, a rock unit deposited 95 million years ago.  During this time, a sea ran up the middle of North America.  The Greenhorn includes chalky, fossil-rich, and more limey layers.  Fossils include ammonites, clams, and petrified wood, some of which appear in the fence posts. 

The post rock era ended in the 1920s, as farmers and ranchers began to use wood and steel, transported by railroads and cars.  Over the following decades,  the posts’ popularity lead to periodical revivals and one can still find many of the beautiful and unusual posts, a testimony in stone to the ingenuity of plains dwellers.

A good gigapan photo of the fenceposts has been posted by Ron Schott.