a sedimentary rock that tells a story, from northeastern China

dolostone [399 kb] label [212 kb]

Figs. 1-2: A sample from the Yifu Museum at the China University of Geosciences - Beijing, and its label. The sample is circa 20-25 cm long. Translation of Mandarin, and indeed transliteration from Chinese to Roman characters, remains something of a challenge, as smartphone software lacks nuance, and many Chinese characters hold multiple meanings in English! This delightfully translated "pessimistic dolomite" is not really a sad rock, but the sediment was deposited under stressful conditions, a long time ago. Specimen Djx010 is a grey dolomite, a "storm rock", "storm crag" or tempestite. More on this below. The age is given as Pt2Jx, in Jixian county, collected by Museum staff, July 2006 The interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, but we have 2 possible clues to constrain provenance, and to look for a published reference to the site --- the age and the locality. We will look into the nature and origin of the rock, and its provenance, in more detail below, and also examine a similar rock found in an ornamental garden a few kilometres west of the museum (Figs. 3-4).

"Rock of the Month # 219, posted for September 2019" ---

A quick scan of the literature indicates that "the Jixian" is a mid- Proterozoic time slice, named for a locality called Jixian near Tianjin, the port city on the east side of Beijing. So, in China and perhaps beyond, Pt2Jx means mid-Proterozoic era, Jixian stage. The Yifu museum at CUGB also has a nice stromatolite (layered colonial fossil structure, of algal origin) from Jixian, and the National Geological Museum has a late Proterozoic fossil called Scopulimorpha regularis from Jixian. The Jixian locality was apparently suggested and then withdrawn as a possible world heritage site for Proterozoic stratigraphy, back in 1987. Jixian time (not part of the official world time chart by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, as of 2018/08) is 1600-1400 Ma: rocks forming a Jixian Group were deposited in this time interval. The ICS chart gives that period as the basal Mesoproterozoic and labels it the "Calymmian".

Here (Fig. 1) we see a banded carbonate sediment, a dolostone (i.e., the principal carbonate mineral in the rock is dolomite, as opposed to calcite in a typical limestone). Note the layers (Figs. 1-2) in the samples, and in particular those curious layers that appear to be composed mainly of small (roughly 5-10 mm) sheets and wisps. These small flat sheets often appear to be layered, each one subparallel to the next, laid down in an imbricate fashion (i.e., like tiles on a roof). These flat sheets are probably shredded fragments ("rip-up clasts") of microbial mats (or algal mats), layers of very fine-grained sediment composed of alternate layers of fine silt and organic (microbial or filamentous algal) matter.

Why are the mats shredded into these little pieces? By analogy with modern sediments forming in the Earth's seas today, this dolostone probably accumulated in a shallow, equatorial to subtropical sea, comparable to the coasts of modern Florida or Saudi Arabia. The subtropical latitudes, such as the modern Caribbean, are prone to severe summer storms such as hurricanes. Unconsolidated sediments in shallow waters, down to the effective wavebase, can be torn up in such storms (tempests), and then the fragments will be redeposited when the water calms down after the storm. This is why such sediments are referred to as tempestites. Sedimentary structures are reviewed in the concise field guide by Tucker (2011).

Work in Jixian county (now also termed the Jizhou district), at the northern end of Tianjin municipality, circa 100 km east of Beijing, led to discovery of a Mesoproterozoic fossil biota, in thin sections of carbonaceous black chert (Schopf et al., 1984). One community is in bedded, flat-laminated stromatolitic chert while the other is in silicified conical stromatolites (two forms of Conophyton). In addition to such cherts, chemical sediments also formed around submarine hydrothermal vents (fumaroles), some of which are preserved in jaspilite (Li and Lu, 1996). Jixian strata (Chen et al., 2016) are widespread around the Ordos block, extending well to the west and southwest of Beijing. The Jixian strata include platform dolostone and siliceous (clastic) sediments. The sedimentary environments of platform edge facies, shelf facies, and slope facies are respectively marked by 1) intraclastic dolostones, algae and stromatolites (as seen at the National Geological Museum in Beijing), 2) dolomites, nodular chert and fan-shaped tempestite breccias, and 3) carbonate debris flow sediments.

temp-2 [486 kb]

temp-1 [537 kb]

Figs. 3-4: Part of a metre-scale block of decorative stone, most probably also from northern Tianjin municipality and, below, a close-up showing microbial mat fragments (the 0.5-yuan coin is 20 mm in diameter). Rectangular, rough-hewn blocks of this attractive grey landscaping stone, typically on the order of 50 cm thick, are used to line paths within the ruins of Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, of late Qing (i.e., 19th century) date, in northwestern Beijing.

This class of sediments seems exotic, compared to the much larger volumes of "humdrum", gently-deposited limestones and sandstones preserved in the geological record worldwide. Here are more examples from other countries. A detailed study of Silurian strata on Anticosti Island, Quebec, Canada, describes fining-upwards storm units (tempestites), 5-80 cm thick, which consist of a sharp, scoured base grading up (in "sediment-speak") from intraclastic / bioclastic rudstone to medium-grained grainstone, finely laminated calcisiltite and mudstone, and shale. These tempestites are interbedded with low-energy, fairweather mudstones and calcareous shales (Sami and Desrochers, 1992). Such deposits can give an indication of the climate in times past (Long, 2007). In the Upper Ordovician of southern Ontario, there is a recessive, and so indifferently- exposed, shale sequence deposited under storm influence. The lower member of this Whitby Formation includes dark grey shale with black kerogen flakes aligned parallel to bedding, and tempestite with rounded phosphatized pelmicrite intraclasts in dark grey shale, shell lags of brachiopod valves, and medium-grey shale with fining-upwards silty laminations (Ludvigsen and Tuffnell, 1994). Tempestites are described also in the early Tertiary sequences of northern India (e.g., Singh and Srivastava, 2011; Bhatia et al., 2013).


Bhatia,SB, Bhargava,ON,Singh,BP and Bagi,H (2013) Sequence stratigraphic framework of the Paleogene succession of the Himalayan foreland basin: a case study from the Shimla Hills. J.Palaeontological Society of India 58, 21-38.

Chen,Y, Fu,X, Xiao,A, Yu,L, Tang,Y and Mao,L (2016) Type and evolution of carbonate platforms in Jixian period Mesoproterozoic: southwestern margin of Ordos Basin. J.Petrol.Explor.Prod.Technol. 6, 555-568.

Li,H and Lu,S (1996) Geology and geochemistry of the hydrothermal jaspilite in the Mesoproterozoic Tieling Formation, Jixian, China. Proc. IGC 30, vol.17, 311-323, China University of Geosciences - Beijing.

Long,DGF (2007) Tempestite frequency curves: a key to late Ordovician and early Silurian subsidence, sea-level change, and orbital forcing in the Anticosti foreland basin, Quebec, Canada. Can.J.Earth Sci. 44, 413-431.

Ludvigsen,R and Tuffnell,PA (1994) The last olenacean trilobite: Triarthrus in the Whitby Formation (upper Ordovician) of southern Ontario. New York State Museum Geol.Surv.Bull. 481, 380pp. 183-212.

Sami,T and Desrochers,A (1992) Episodic sedimentation on an early Silurian, storm-dominated carbonate ramp, Becscie and Merrimack formations, Anticosti Island, Canada. Sedimentology 39, 355-381.

Schopf,JW, Zhu,W-Q, Xu,Z-L and Hsu,J (1984) Proterozoic stromatolitic microbiotas of the 1400-1500 Ma-old Gaoyuzhuang formation near Jixian, northern China. Precambrian Research 24, 335-349.

Singh,BP and Srivastava,AK (2011) Storm activities during the sedimentation of late Paleocene-middle Eocene Subathu Formation, western Himalayan foreland basin. J.Geol.Soc.India 77, 130-136.

Tucker,ME (2011) Sedimentary Rocks in the Field: a Practical Guide. Wiley-Blackwell, 4th edition, 276pp.

Graham Wilson, 02-08 September 2019.

Visit the "Rock of the Month" Archives!
or browse by category in the
"Rock of the Month Index"
(specimens related to China, and Beijing, appear below).
Provenance of specimens:
CAGS = China Academy of Geological Sciences, Beijing
CUGB = China University of Geosciences, Beijing (Grounds and Yifu Museum)
NGMC = National Geological Museum of China, Beijing
TGSL = Turnstone / Wilson collection
Various = Other private collections
YMY = Yuanmingyuan, Old Summer Palace, Beijing

Class/Group/Family Topics in China --- 中国 (Zhong guo) --- such as samples in Beijing museums Site
The "Rock of the Month"
Tektite (glass) ---- #55 --- Tektites from Guangdong, China TGSL
Feldsparphyric ornamental "peony" stone --- #178 --- Porphyritic metabasite from Henan, China CUGB
Rapakivi granite (building stone) --- #179 --- Textures in a rapakivi granite, Beijing, China CUGB
Arsenic ore minerals --- #180 --- Arsenic sulphides, realgar and orpiment, from (?) Hunan, China CUGB
Superb crinoid fossils --- #181 --- Traumatocrinus, exceptional crinoid fossil from Guizhou, China NGMC
Beryl, beryllium cyclosilicate, gemstone --- #186 --- Prismatic beryl from (?) Yunnan, China CUGB
Vertebrate fossil, historically significant --- #201 --- Mesosaurus, fossil reptile & mascot for Gondwanaland (Brazil, via Guangxi, China) CUGB
Ornamental carving stone, China --- #203 --- Qingtian stone, superb lapidary material from Zhejiang, China CUGB
Ophiolitic chromitite --- #205 --- Chromitite, Luobusa ophiolite, southern Tibet (Xizang, China) CAGS
Nephrite jade --- #207 --- Massive jade as decorative piece, from China Various
Peridotite xenoliths in basalt --- #217 --- Mantle nodules and megacrysts, Hebei, China TGSL / CAGS
Tempestite dolostone of Jixian age --- #219 --- Tempestite with algal mats, Tianjin, China CUGB / YMY