1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agglomerate

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Agglomerate (from the Lat. agglomerare, to form into a ball, glomus, glomeris), a term used in botany, meaning crowded in a close cluster or head, and, in geology, applied to the accumulations of coarse volcanic ejectamenta such as frequently occur near extinct or active volcanoes. Agglomerates in the geological sense, with which this article is concerned, consist typically of blocks of various igneous rocks, mixed often with more or less material of rudimentary origin and embedded in a finer-grained matrix, similar in nature to the coarser fragments. As distinguished from ordinary ash beds or tuffs, they are essentially coarser, less frequently well-bedded; they are less persistent and tend to occur locally, but may attain a very great thickness. Showers of fine ash may be distributed over a wide area of country and will form thin layers of great extent. Coarser accumulations gather only near the actual foci of eruption (craters, fissures, &c.). When the activity of a volcanic vent comes to an end, the orifice is often choked by masses of debris, which will in time become compacted into firm agglomerates. Hence rocks of this type very commonly mark the sites of necks, the remains of once-active volcanic craters. In this connexion they are of especial interest to geologists, as it is always important to be able to locate the exact points at which volcanic products, such as lavas and ash-beds, were emitted.

The blocks in agglomerates vary greatly in size. Some are thirty or forty feet in diameter, and weigh many tons; these are usually pieces of the strata through which the volcano has forced an outlet. They are never far from the crater; most of them, in fact, lie within its boundaries, and cases are known in which enormous masses of this kind (half an acre in area) have been found in such situations. They are masses which have been dislodged, by fissures and landslides, from the crater's walls and have tumbled into the cavity. Pieces of sandstone, limestone and shale occur in the agglomerates mixed with volcanic materials, and very often have been baked and partly recrystallized by contact with the hot igneous rocks and the gases discharged by the volcano. At Vesuvius such blocks of altered limestone are rich in new minerals and are well known to collectors.

Agglomerates also are usually full of volcanic bombs. These are spongy globular masses of lava which have been shot from the crater at a time when liquid molten lava was exposed in it, and was frequently shattered by the sudden outbursts of steam. These bombs were more or less viscous at the moment of ejection and by rotation in the air acquired their spheroidal form. They are commonly one or two feet in diameter, but specimens as large as nine or twelve feet have been observed. There is less variety in their composition at any volcanic centre than in the case of the foreign blocks above described. They correspond in nature to the lava which at the time fills the crater of the volcano, and as this varies only very slowly the bombs belong mostly to only a few kinds of rock and are similar in composition to the lava flows.

Crystalline masses of a different kind occur in some numbers in certain agglomerates. They consist of volcanic minerals very much the same as those formed in the lavas, but exhibiting certain peculiarities which indicate that they have formed slowly under pressure at considerable depths. Hence they bear a resemblance to plutonic igneous rocks, but are more correctly to be regarded as agglomerations of crystals formed within the liquid lava as it slowly rose towards the surface, and at a subsequent period cast out by violent steam explosions. The sanidinites of the Eifel belong to this group. At Vesuvius, Ascension, St Vincent and many other volcanoes, they form a not inconsiderable part of the coarser ash-beds. Their commonest minerals are olivine, anorthite, hornblende, augite, biotite and leucite.

Agglomerates occur wherever volcanoes are known. In many parts of Britain they attain a great development either in beds alternating with lavas or as the material occupying necks. In the latter case they are often penetrated by dikes. They also show a steep, angular, funnel-shaped dip (e.g. Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh), and may contain thin layers of clay or ashy sand-stone, which gathered in the crater during intervals of repose. (J. S. F.)