1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marl

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MARL (from O. Fr. marle, Late Lat. margila, dim. of marga; cf. Du. and Ger. Mergel), a calcareous clay, or a mixture of carbonate of lime with argillaceous matter. It is impossible to give a strict definition of a marl, for the term is applied to a great variety of rocks and soils with a considerable range of composition. On the one hand, the marls graduate into clays by diminution in the amount of lime that they contain, and on the other hand they pass into argillaceous limestones (see Limestone). From 25–75% of carbonate of lime may be regarded as characteristic of the marls. But in popular usage many substances are called marls which would not be included under the definition given here. The practice formerly much in vogue of top-dressing land with marls, and the use of many different kinds of earth and clay for that purpose, has led to a very general misapplication of the term; for all sorts of rotted rock, some being of igneous origin while others are rain-wash, loams, and various superficial deposits, have been called “marls” in different parts of Britain, if only it was believed that an application of them to the surface of the fields would result in increased fertility.

The typical marls are soft, earthy, and of a white, grey or brownish colour. Many of them disintegrate in water; and they are readily attacked by dilute hydrochloric acid, which dissolves the carbonate of lime rapidly, giving off bubbles of carbon dioxide. The lime of some marls is present in the form of shells, whole or broken; in others it is a fine impalpable powder mixed with the clay. In many marls there is organic matter (plant fragments or humus). Sand is usually not abundant but is rarely absent. Gypsum occurs in some marls, occasionally in large simple crystals with the form of lozenge-shaped plates or in twinned groups resembling an arrow-head; fine examples of these are obtained in the marls of Montmartre near Paris, where celestine (strontium sulphate) occurs also in nodular or concretionary masses. Large crystals of calcite or of dolomite, lumps of iron pyrites or radiate nodules of marcasite, and small crystals of quartz are found in certain marl deposits; and in Westphalia the marls of the Senonian (part of the Cretaceous system) at Hamm yield masses of strontianite up to two feet in length. A very large variety of accessory minerals may be proved to exist in marls by microscopic examination.

The rocks known as shell marls are found in many parts of Britain and other northern countries, and are much valued by farmers as a source of carbonate of lime, though rarely burned to produce quicklime. They are generally obtained by digging pits in marshy spots or meadows, and often occur below considerable thicknesses of peat. Large numbers of shells of fresh-water mollusca are scattered through a matrix of clay; usually retaining their shapes though they are in a friable and semi-decomposed state. The species represented are very few, and from their unbroken state it is obvious that they have not been transported but lived in the place where their remains are found. As mollusca of this kind thrive best in open stretches of clear water, the sites of the marl deposits must have been shallow lakes and open pools.

Among the older strata it is not uncommon to find beds which have the same composition and in many cases the same origin as shell marl. While some of them are fresh-water deposits, others are of marine origin. The “ crag beds " of the Pliocene formation in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex are essentially sand and gravel, which are often rich in shells; with them occur clays such as the Chillesford clay; and many of these beds have actually been used as marls for dressing the surface of agricultural land. Better examples occur among the Oligocene beds of the Hampshire basin and the Isle of Wight, where the Steadon, Bembridge and Hempstead marls are clays, more or less sandy, containing fresh-water shells. In the Cretaceous rocks of the south of England soft argillaceous limestones of marine origin, which may be described as marls, occur on several horizons. At its base the white chalk is often mixed with clay, and the “ chalk marl " is a rock of this kind; it is known in Cambridgeshire, at Folkestone, in the Isle of Wight, &c. The chloritic marl, which underlies the chalk and is well developed in the Isle of Wight, is a greenish argillaceous limestone, the colour being due to the presence of glauconite, not of chlorite; it is often very fossiliferous. The Gault, an argillaceous type of the Upper Greensand, is a stiff greyish calcareous clay, beneath the white chalk, well known for the excellent preservation of its fossils. It outcrops along the base of the escarpment of the North and South Downs; the original name given to it by William Smith was “ the blue marl.” In the Jurassic rocks of England there are marls or shelly fresh-water clays in the Purbeck series and also in the estuarine beds of the Great Oolite, but the name “ marlstone ” has long been reserved for the argillaceous limestone of the Middle Lias. It ranges from the Dorset coast, through Edge Hill in Warwickshire and Lincolnshire, and thence to the sea in the north of Yorkshire, presenting many variations in this long extent of country and often accompanied by, or converted into, beds of clay ironstone. The marlstone is typically a firm, greyish limestone weathering to a rusty brown colour, and is always more or less argillaceous.

In the Triassic rocks of Britain there is a very important series of red, green and mottled clays, over a thousand feet thick in some places, which have been called the New Red marls. They belong to the Keuper or uppermost division of the system, and in Cheshire contain valuable deposits of rock salt, the principal sources of that mineral in Great Britain. In the strict sense these rocks are not marls, being ferruginous clays rather than calcareous clays. Most of them appear to have been laid down in saline lakes in desert regions. As a rule they contain very few fossils, and often they have little or no carbonate of lime, but beds and veins of fibrous gypsum occur in them in considerable profusion. These rocks cover a wide area in the midland counties extending to the south coast near Exmouth, and reappear in the north in the Vale of Eden and a few places in southern Scotland. The clays are used for brick making, and yield a stiff soil, mostly devoted to pasture and dairy farming. In the Rhaetic beds which immediately overlie the Triassic rocks there are three seams of calcareous clay, often only a few feet thick, which have been called the “ grey marls " and the “ tea-green marls.”

To rocks older than these the name marl has not often been given, probably because, though argillaceous limestones are often common in the Carboniferous and Silurian rocks, they are usually firm and compact, while marls usually comprise rocks which are more or less soft and friable. In other countries, and especially in Germany, many different kinds of marl and of marl-slate are described. Two of these are of especial importance-the dark copper-bearing marl slate of the Permian rocks near Mansfeld in Germany, which has been long and extensively worked as sources of copper, and the white or creamy Solenhofen limestone, much quarried in Bavaria, and used as a lithographic stone.  (J. S. F.)