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Stratigraphic Superposition

Picture on left: In places where layers of rocks are contorted, the relative ages of the layers may be difficult to determine. View near Copiapo, Chile.

At the close of the 18th century, careful studies by scientists showed that rocks had diverse origins. Some rock layers, containing clearly identifiable fossil remains of fish and other forms of aquatic animal and plant life, originally formed in the ocean. Other layers, consisting of sand grains winnowed clean by the pounding surf, obviously formed as beach deposits that marked the shorelines of ancient seas. Certain layers are in the form of sand bars and gravel banks -- rock debris spread over the land by streams. Some rocks were once lava flows or beds of cinders and ash thrown out of ancient volcanoes; others are portions of large masses of once molten rock that cooled very slowly far beneath the Earth's surface. Other rocks were so transformed by heat and pressure during the heaving and buckling of the Earth's crust in periods of mountain building that their original features were obliterated.

Between the years of 1785 and 1800, James Hutton and William Smith advanced the concept of geologic time and strengthened the belief in an ancient world. Hutton, a Scottish geologist, first proposed formally the fundamental principle used to classify rocks according to their relative ages. He concluded, after studying rocks at many outcrops, that each layer represented a specific interval of geologic time. Further, he proposed that wherever uncontorted layers were exposed, the bottom layer was deposited first and was, therefore, the oldest layer exposed; each succeeding layer, up to the topmost one, was progressively younger.

Today, such a proposal appears to be quite elementary but, nearly 200 years ago, it amounted to a major breakthrough in scientific reasoning by establishing a rational basis for relative time measurements. However, unlike tree-ring dating -- in which each ring is a measure of 1 year's growth -- no precise rate of deposition can be determined for most of the rock layers. Therefore, the actual length of geologic time represented by any given layer is usually unknown or, at best, a matter of opinion.1

Stratigraphic Principles and Relative Time

Much of the Earth's geology consists of successional layers of different rock types, piled one on top of another. The most common rocks observed in this form are sedimentary rocks (derived from what were formerly sediments), and extrusive igneous rocks (e.g., lavas, volcanic ash, and other formerly molten rocks extruded onto the Earth's surface). The layers of rock are known as "strata", and the study of their succession is known as "stratigraphy". Fundamental to stratigraphy are a set of simple principles, based on elementary geometry, empirical observation of the way these rocks are deposited today, and gravity. Most of these principles were formally proposed by Nicolaus Steno (Niels Steensen, Danish), in 1669, although some have an even older heritage that extends as far back as the authors of the Bible. A few principles were recognized and specified later. An early summary of them is found in Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology", published in 1830-32, and does not differ greatly from a modern formulation:

  1. The principle of superposition - in a vertical sequence of sedimentary or volcanic rocks, a higher rock unit is younger than a lower one. "Down" is older, "up" is younger.
  2. The principle of original horizontality - rock layers were originally deposited close to horizontal.
  3. The principle of original lateral extension - A rock unit continues laterally unless there is a structure or change to prevent its extension.
  4. The principle of cross-cutting relationships - a structure that cuts another is younger than the structure that is cut.
  5. The principle of inclusion - a structure that is included in another is older than the including structure.
  6. The principle of "uniformitarianism" - processes operating in the past were constrained by the same "laws of physics" as operate today.

Note that these are principles. In no way are they meant to imply there are no exceptions. For example, the principle of superposition is based, fundamentally, on gravity. In order for a layer of material to be deposited, something has to be beneath it to support it. It can't float in mid-air, particularly if the material involved is sand, mud, or molten rock. The principle of superposition therefore has a clear implication for the relative age of a vertical succession of strata. There are situations where it potentially fails -- for example, in cave deposits. In this situation, the cave contents are younger than both the bedrock below the cave and the suspended roof above. However, note that because of the "principle of cross-cutting relationships", careful examination of the contact between the cave infill and the surrounding rock will reveal the true relative age relationships, as will the "principle of inclusion" if fragments of the surrounding rock are found within the infill. Cave deposits also often have distinctive structures of their own (e.g., spelothems like stalactites and stalagmites), so it is not likely that someone could mistake them for a successional sequence of rock units.

These geological principles are not assumptions either. Each of them is a testable hypothesis about the relationships between rock units and their characteristics. They are applied by geologists in the same sense that a "null hypothesis" is in statistics -- not necessarily correct, just testable. In the last 200 or more years of their application, they are often valid, but geologists do not assume they are. They are the "initial working hypotheses" to be tested further by data.

Using these principles, it is possible to construct an interpretation of the sequence of events for any geological situation, even on other planets (e.g., a crater impact can cut into an older, pre-existing surface, or craters may overlap, revealing their relative ages). The simplest situation for a geologist is a "layer cake" succession of sedimentary or extrusive igneous rock units arranged in nearly horizontal layers. In such a situation, the "principle of superposition" is easily applied, and the strata towards the bottom are older, those towards the top are younger.

This orientation is not an assumption, because in virtually all situations, it is also possible to determine the original "way up" in the stratigraphic succession from "way up indicators". For example, wave ripples have their pointed crests on the "up" side, and more rounded troughs on the "down" side. Many other indicators are commonly present, including ones that can even tell you the angle of the depositional surface at the time ("geopetal structures"), "assuming" that gravity was "down" at the time, which isn't much of an assumption.

In more complicated situations, like in a mountain belt, there are often faults, folds, and other structural complications that have deformed and "chopped up" the original stratigraphy. Despite this, the "principle of cross cutting relationships" can be used to determine the sequence of deposition, folds, and faults based on their intersections -- if folds and faults deform or cut across the sedimentary layers and surfaces, then they obviously came after deposition of the sediments. You can't deform a structure (e.g., bedding) that is not there yet! Even in complex situations of multiple deposition, deformation, erosion, deposition, and repeated events, it is possible to reconstruct the sequence of events. Even if the folding is so intense that some of the strata is now upside down, this fact can be recognized with "way up" indicators.

No matter what the geologic situation, these basic principles reliably yield a reconstructed history of the sequence of events, both depositional, erosional, deformational, and others, for the geology of a region. This reconstruction is tested and refined as new field information is collected, and can be (and often is) done completely independently of anything to do with other methods (e.g., fossils and radiometric dating). The reconstructed history of events forms a "relative time scale", because it is possible to tell that event A occurred prior to event B, which occurred prior to event C, regardless of the actual duration of time between them. Sometimes this study is referred to as "event stratigraphy", a term that applies regardless of the type of event that occurs (biologic, sedimentologic, environmental, volcanic, magnetic, diagenetic, tectonic, etc.).

These simple techniques have been widely and successfully applied since at least the early 1700s, and by the early 1800s, geologists had recognized that many obvious similarities existed in terms of the independently-reconstructed sequence of geologic events observed in different parts of the world. One of the earliest (1759) relative time scales based upon this observation was the subdivision of the Earth's stratigraphy (and therefore its history), into the "Primary", "Secondary", "Tertiary", and later (1854) "Quaternary" strata based mainly on characteristic rock types in Europe. The latter two subdivisions, in an emended form, are still used today by geologists. The earliest, "Primary" is somewhat similar to the modern Paleozoic and Precambrian, and the "Secondary" is similar to the modern Mesozoic. Another observation was the similarity of the fossils observed within the succession of strata, which leads to the next topic2 -- The Fossil Record.

The Fossil Record

Radiation Measurement

Geological Time Main Page

1USGS Geologic Information - General Interest Publications

2Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale