1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gneiss

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GNEISS, a term long used by the miners of the Harz Mountains to designate the country rock in which the mineral veins occur; it is believed to be a word of Slavonic origin meaning “rotted” or “decomposed.” It has gradually passed into acceptance as a generic term signifying a large and varied series of metamorphic rocks, which mostly consist of quartz and felspar (orthoclase and plagioclase) with muscovite and biotite, hornblende or augite, iron oxides, zircon and apatite. There is also a long list of accessory minerals which are present in gneisses with more or less frequency, but not invariably, as garnet, sillimanite, cordierite, graphite and graphitoid, epidote, calcite, orthite, tourmaline and andalusite. The gneisses all possess a more or less marked parallel structure or foliation, which is the main feature by which many of them are separated from the granites, a group of rocks having nearly the same mineralogical composition and closely allied to many gneisses.

The felspars of the gneisses are predominantly orthoclase (often perthitic), but microcline is common in the more acid types and oligoclase occurs also very frequently, especially in certain sedimentary gneisses, while more basic varieties of plagioclase are rare. Quartz is very seldom absent and may be blue or milky and opalescent. Muscovite and biotite may both occur in the same rock; in other cases only one of them is present. The commonest and most important types of gneiss are the mica-gneisses. Hornblende is green, rarely brownish; augite pale green or nearly colourless; enstatite appears in some granulite-gneisses. Epidote, often with enclosures of orthite, is by no means rare in gneisses from many different parts of the world. Sillimanite and andalusite are not infrequent ingredients of gneiss, and their presence has been accounted for in more than one way. Cordierite-gneisses are a special group of great interest and possessing many peculiarities; they are partly, if not entirely, foliated contact-altered sedimentary rocks. Kyanite and staurolite may also be mentioned as occasionally occurring.

Many varieties of gneiss have received specific names according to the minerals they consist of and the structural peculiarities they exhibit. Muscovite-gneiss, biotite-gneiss and muscovite-biotite-gneiss, more common perhaps than all the others taken together, are grey or pinkish rocks according to the colour of their prevalent felspar, not unlike granites, but on the whole more often fine-grained (though coarse-grained types occur) and possessing a gneissose or foliated structure. The latter consists in the arrangement of the flakes of mica in such a way that their faces are parallel, and hence the rock has the property of splitting more readily in the direction in which the mica plates are disposed. This fissility, though usually marked, is not so great as in the schists or slates, and the split faces are not so smooth as in these latter rocks. The films of mica may be continuous and are usually not flat, but irregularly curved. In some gneisses the parallel flakes of mica are scattered through the quartz and felspar; in others these minerals form discrete bands, the quartz and felspar being grouped into lenticles separated by thin films of mica. When large felspars, of rounded or elliptical form, are visible in the gneiss, it is said to have augen structure (Ger. Augen = eyes). It should also be remarked that the essential component minerals of the rocks of this family are practically always determinable by naked eye inspection or with the aid of a simple lens. If the rock is too fine grained for this it is generally relegated to the schists. When the bands of folia are very fine and tortuous the structure is called helizitic.

In mica-gneisses sillimanite, kyanite, andalusite and garnet may occur. The significance of these minerals is variously interpreted; they may indicate that the gneiss consists wholly or in part of sedimentary material which has been contact-altered, but they have also been regarded as having been developed by metamorphic action out of biotite or other primary ingredients of the rock.

Hornblende-gneisses are usually darker in colour and less fissile than mica-gneisses; they contain more plagioclase, less orthoclase and microcline, and more sphene and epidote. Many of them are rich in hornblende and thus form transitions to amphibolites. Pyroxene-gneisses are less frequent but occur in many parts of both hemispheres. The “charnockite” series are very closely allied to the pyroxene-gneisses. Hypersthene and scapolite both may occur in these rocks and they are sometimes garnetiferous.

In every country where the lowest and oldest rocks have come to the surface and been exposed by the long continued action of denudation in stripping away the overlying formations, gneisses are found in great abundance and of many different kinds. They are in fact the typical rocks of the Archean (Lewisian, Laurentian, &c.) series. In the Alps, Harz, Scotland, Norway and Sweden, Canada, South America, Peninsular India, Himalayas (to mention only a few localities) they occupy wide areas and exhibit a rich diversity of types. From this it has been inferred that they are of great geological age, and in fact this can be definitely proved in many cases, for the oldest known fossiliferous formations may be seen to rest unconformably on these gneisses and are made up of their débris. It was for a long time believed that they represented the primitive crust of the earth, and while this is no longer generally taught there are still geologists who hold that these gneisses are necessarily of pre-Cambrian age. Others, while admitting the general truth of this hypothesis, consider that there are localities in which typical gneisses can be shown to penetrate into rocks which may be as recent as the Tertiary period, or to pass into these rocks so gradually and in such a way as to make it certain that the gneisses are merely altered states of comparatively recent sedimentary or igneous rocks. Much controversy has arisen on these points; but this is certain, that gneisses are far the most common among Archean rocks, and where their age is not known the presumption is strong that they are at least pre-Cambrian.

Many gneisses are undoubtedly sedimentary rocks that have been brought to their present state by such agents of metamorphism as heat, movement, crushing and recrystallization. This may be demonstrated partly by their mode of occurrence: they accompany limestones, graphitic schists, quartzites and other rocks of sedimentary type; some of them where least altered may even show remains of bedding or of original pebbly character (conglomerate gneisses). More conclusive, however, is the chemical composition of these rocks, which often is such as no igneous masses possess, but resembles that of many impure argillaceous sediments. These sedimentary gneisses (or paragneisses, as they are often called) are often rich in biotite and garnet and may contain kyanite and sillimanite, or less frequently calcite. Some of them, however, are rich in felspar and quartz, with muscovite and biotite; others may even contain hornblende and augite, and all these may bear so close a resemblance to gneisses of igneous origin that by no single character, chemical or mineralogical, can their original nature be definitely established. In these cases, however, a careful study of the relations of the rock in the field and of the different types which occur together will generally lead to some positive conclusion.

Other gneisses are igneous (orthogneisses). These have very much the same composition as acid igneous rocks such as granite, aplite, hornblende granite, or intermediate rocks such as syenite and quartz diorite. Many of these orthogneisses are not equally well foliated throughout, but are massive or granitoid in places. They are sometimes subdivided into granite gneiss, diorite gneiss, syenite gneiss and so on. The sedimentary schists into which these rocks have been intruded may show contact alteration by the development of such minerals as cordierite, andalusite and sillimanite. In many of these orthogneisses the foliation is primitive, being an original character of the rock which was produced either by fluxion movements in a highly viscous, semi-solid mass injected at great pressure into the surrounding strata, or by folding stresses acting immediately after consolidation. That the foliation in other orthogneisses is subsequent or superinduced, having been occasioned by pressure and deformation of the solid mass long after it had consolidated and cooled, admits of no doubt, but it is very difficult to establish criteria by which these types may be differentiated. Those gneisses in which the minerals have been crushed and broken by fluxion or injection movements have been called protoclastic, while those which have attained their gneissose state by crushing long after consolidation are distinguished as cataclastic. There are also many examples of gneisses of mixed or synthetic origin. They may be metamorphosed sediments (granulites and schists) into which tongues and thin veins of granitic character have been intruded, following the more or less parallel foliation planes already present in the country rock. These veinlets produce that alternation in mineral composition and banded structure which are essential in gneisses. This intermixture of igneous and sedimentary material may take place on the finest scale and in the most intricate manner. Often there has been resorption of the older rocks, whether sedimentary or igneous, by those which have invaded them, and movement has gone on both during injection and at a later period, so that the whole complex becomes amalgamated and its elements are so completely confused that the geologist can no longer disentangle them.

When we remember that in the earlier stages of the earth’s history, to which most gneisses belong, and in the relatively deep parts of the earth’s crust, where they usually occur, there has been most igneous injection and greatest frequency of earth movements, it is not difficult to understand the geological distribution of gneissose rocks. All the factors which are required for their production, heat, movement, plutonic intrusions, contact alteration, interstitial moisture at high temperatures, are found at great depths and have acted most frequently and with greatest power on the older rock masses. But locally, where the conditions were favourable, the same processes may have gone on in comparatively recent times. Hence, though most gneisses are Archean, all gneisses are not necessarily so. (J. S. F.)