What's Under Seattle

As the state museum of Washington, the Burke Museum is the official repository for many of the wonderful natural and cultural history cultural that have been found or produced in the state. This includes items discovered during the many engineering projects that have shaped Seattle. To help familiarize people with some of the objects, the museum is hosting an event tonight, Thursday, February 6, as part of the city’s First Thursday events. This is the day that many museums in Seattle are free to visit.

The Burke’s event is titled, What’s Under Seattle. My colleague at the museum, Archaeology Collections Manager Laura Phillips, and I will be leading the event. Our plan is to discuss some of the landscape changes in Seattle and to share some of the objects that have been excavated during the excavations. We will also address that giant machine under the city, Bertha, and consider some of the issues that ail her. Hope you can attend.

We will be speaking at 6pm in the museum on the University of Washington campus.

Golly ned, that's a big Cairn

My pal Dave Tucker sent me this great shot of a new cairn. Here’s what he told me.

“The City of Bellingham recently completed a new roundabout at the intersection of S. State, Wharf, Forest, and Boulevard. They placed a large cairn in the center [lit at night]. The bottom two, and uppermost, rocks are dunite, presumably from the Twin Sisters. The second to top is serpentinite. The stones are balanced and are about 12′ feet tall- somewhat foreshortened
in this photo.”

Way to go Bellingham.


One Big Cairn



Faces in Stone

Over the past few years, I have enjoyed taking photos of faces carved in stone. Here are a few of them. Most are in limestone, particularly Salem Limestone, a rock unrivaled in its use in architectural faces. The one red one is in Portland, Connecticut, and carved in the Portland Formation, the 200-million-year old sandstone best known as the face of brownstone buildings in New York City and Boston. The Picassoesque face is in the Treuchtlingen Marble, or German limestone I mentioned the other day. The face is made from fossilized sponges. Hope you enjoy them.

Harvard Stone

My wife and I moved to Boston in 1996. For the previous nine years, I had lived in Moab, Utah, in the heart of a geologic eden. I became addicted to seeing beautiful rocks, hiking up red rock slopes, clamoring over slickrock, and canoeing deep in sandstone canyons. When I moved to Boston, my geologic knowledge of the east coast could be summed up in two words: Plymouth Rock. I knew nothing about the regional landscape, and like many from the west, even scorned what easterners called “mountains.”

But then one day a few months after moving to Boston, I was walking on the Harvard campus, and came across a handsome old building, Harvard Hall. I walked up to the base and admired the reddish-brown sandstone under the brick edifice. Harvard Hall had been built in 1766 and the sandstone had weathered and begun to erode. As I ran my hand over the rocks, grains of sand flicked off. I caught a few and had a great epiphany. What the easterners called brownstone was what westerners called red rock. Both are a sandstone containing a bit of iron that had weathered, or rusted, and made the sandstone red or brown, depending upon your location. I later learned that the main source of eastern brownstone, quarries in Portland, Connecticut, are in a 200-million-year old stone, coincidentally about the same age as my favorite rock in Utah, the Wingate Sandstone.

Recently, I was back at Harvard and able to see Harvard Hall again. There is still brownstone at the base but in one area they have replaced the weathered stone with brand new, or at least freshly quarried stone, from the Portland quarries.

I also found another darned cool rock at Harvard. It’s the stone cladding Hauser Hall. The stone is known in the trade as the Treuchtlingen Marble, a 175-million-year old limestone from Germany. On the side of the building is a ten-inch-wide ammonite. It is the largest ammonite I have ever seen in a building stone. There are numerous ammonites, as well as sponges and brachiopods in the Treuchtlingen as well.

These stones later led me to write my first article on building stone, for the Harvard alumni magazine, which ultimately led me to writing my book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology. They say you can’t go home again, but you can go back to see the stone.


London Stone

London is one of the great walking cities of the world with centuries of history to explore. You can discover Roman history, the London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, and, of course, building stones. I recently came across a wonderful site from University College London that includes more than a dozen walks around the city. Each one reveals thought provoking aspects of the city and provides an easy and excellent way to learn the basics of geology.

Below are a couple of screen shots from one of the guides to graveyards. Happy exploring!


The Government and the Cairn

A few weeks ago I was out near Pullman, Washington, and came across this fine sign. It’s a nice succinct definition of what they are and why we need them. And who says the government can’t do good things. I also like the final sentence. Making it a game to find the next cairn is a nice way to keep kids hiking when they are complaining about being out too long. You can’t do that with one of those fancy GPS thingees that so many now rely upon.

A Nice Looking Cairn

Recently some friends have been sending me photos of cairns, so I thought I’d post them. The first one is from near Diamond Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in western Boulder County.  Curiously, my friend told me, the cairn was not at the “top” of a mountain, just a high point along the slope of an unnamed peak.  One storm had passed over and it was alternately gray and white looking east toward the plains. Enjoy.

Great Salem Limestone web site

I recently learned of an amazing new trove of photographs of the Salem Limestone, the most commonly used building stone in the United States. The collection is held by the Indiana Geological Survey and comes from the Indians Limestone Quarrier. From the early 1900s through the 1980s, the company had a staff of professional photographers who detailed all aspects of the building process. They took around 12,000 black and white photographs, each of which is mounted on linen. Fortunately, the photographs are labeled with information on location, owner, date of construction, builder, and architect.

The IGS says the photographs constitute a “hidden collection,” since none were accessible to the public. They hope to change this by making the photographs available. After having the photographs for several months, they have put up two nifty web sites with pictures and geographic information. It’s a great beginning for the collection. They are hoping to stabilize, clean, and digitize the collection and eventually create a more thorough and interactive web site in the future. I hope they succeed.

Indiana Geological Survey Web Site

Here are the links to the sites.

Focus on more photos than map.

Focus more on map than photos.


Official National Rock

As usual, Gail Collins has written a fine editorial today but for perhaps the first time she addresses a key issue to geologists: an official national rock. Here is what she wrote. ”The United States has a few of these items, like a bird and an anthem, but there’s plenty of territory to cover. The president could demand that Congress pick an official national rock. Committees could hold hearings about the relative merits of slate and granite. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would threaten to filibuster unless his colleagues considered coal. But, in the end, I believe everybody would rally around a grand compromise for marble. And the country would feel much, much better.

Baby steps. Then we can get to the debt ceiling.”

Personally I favor limestone, at least from a building stone point of view. As I have written before, the Salem Limestone from Indiana is the most widely used building stone in the USA, particularly in official buildings such as court houses and post offices. It is rock that everyone would have the chance to see.

I could also see focusing on another favorite of mine, the Morton Gneiss. It, too, is widely used, plus it is part of the original craton of what is now the North American craton, thus an original American rock.

Or what about the puddingstone of Boston. One could compare it to the United States in that the puddingstone is a conglomerate made of diverse bits of pieces, which together give it its distinctive look.

In contrast, corporate interests might favor marble for its use in places of power, such as board rooms and elegant offices; salt, because of the salt domes rich in oil and gas; or shale and its new found prominence due to fracking.

Slate also can make a claim, at least an historic one. For many years, it as ubiquitous as plastic, finding use in billiard-table beds, steps and risers, wainscoting, moldings, lintels, laundry tubs, cisterns, urinals, blackboards, headstones, counter tops, brewer’s vats, greenhouse shelves, chimney tops, switch boards, and panels for electric work, to name just a handful of its many uses. It can also make a claim for the geologic term most used in our language. We wipe the slate clean or start over with a clean slate. We refer to a tabula rasa, literally a scraped tablet, but more often defined as a clean slate. We vote for one of a slate of candidates. We are slated to do something and those who had a debt were formerly said to be on the slate.

Any thoughts? And, should we have an Official National Stone?


Best Cairns Video

A pal sent me this outstanding video that stars two animated cairns. It’s from the German short film Das Rad. It’s about 8 minutes long and is somewhat surreal. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002 for Animated Short Film. It really shows the potential for cairns as movie stars, though I recognize that if it hasn’t happened in the 10 plus years since the release of the film, it probably won’t happen. But I can always hope. Enjoy.

Das Rad Video