Traveling Far Back
Nature's Objects



Natural objects, like all collectibles, can be a physical and tactile way to connect you with a different reality. Often, as in the case of coins or artifacts, collectibles connect you to a particular time period, people, or ruler notable in the history of humankind. In the case of the six objects below, they connect to the history of the Earth and the history of the Universe, prodding you to learn more and perhaps shedding light on your place in the grand scheme of things.




















Left: Obsidian lava (22.3g, 45 x 27 x 18 mm)
c. 10 million years old
Right: Pumice lava (5.5g, 44 x 32 x 21 mm)
c. 5,000 years old















Among the objects that have been used as money before coinage is obsidian, a type of cooled, solidified lava or magma, lava being molten rock above ground, magma below it. Cooled, solidified lava and magma are known as volcanic glass or igneous rock. Along with obsidian, the other of the two best known types is pumice. Obsidian and pumice are often found together.

Obsidian forms when lava or magma cools quickly, when exposed to water, for instance. It consists of about 70 percent silicon dioxide, with iron and magnesium giving it its dark color. Because it breaks down relatively easily, no obsidian has been found that's older than the
Cretaceous Period, which began about 145 million years ago. It's rare, however, to find obsidian older than 20 million years, according to geologist Jim Miller, so I'm dating the above piece c. 10 million years old.

Because obsidian, like flint, breaks into sharp edges, it has been used since the Stone Age for blades and arrowheads along with money. It has also been used for jewelry and, because of its reflectivity when polished, to make mirrors. Today, because its edges can reach molecular thinness, five times thinner than steel, obsidian is used for scalpels in cardiac surgery, leading to less tissue trauma and scaring and faster healing.

Obsidian is found frequently in the western United States, and the above specimen was found in Arizona.

Pumice, in contrast, is volcanic glass filled with holes that's much lighter and less dense than obsidian. It's the only rock that floats in water, according to
John McIntosh. Pumice is typically light in color, with the above specimen being black because of its relatively high content of iron and magnesium. Pumice is created from the solidification of pyroclastic material ejected from volcanoes -- hot gas, ash, and rock -- with gas bubbles causing its porosity. Pumice is considerably more fragile than obsidian and typically much younger. I'm dating the above piece c. 5,000 years old.

Pumice was used in ancient times to make a type of concrete and is still used for this purpose today. It's also used today as an abrasive in soap, toothpaste, polishes, and cosmetics and to remove calluses.

Obsidian and pumice point to volcanism, which is a key way that planets such as the Earth cool off.















Dinosaur fossil





Left: Front view of dinosaur bone fossil (94.1g, 50 x 66 x 48 mm)
Right: Top view
c. 65 million years old















Dinosaurs fascinate, and this fossil is from the age of dinosaurs. Fossils like this are the mineralized remains of a bone, with minerals from the Earth replacing the organic matter and part of the inorganic matter of the object while preserving its form. (Another type of fossil consists of a mark left behind by an organism, such as its imprint in mud or sand.)

This fossil is relatively light for its size, indicating that it's only lightly mineralized, with much of the bone's original calcium phosphate remaining and only some of it being replaced by what is likely silicon dioxide from the sediments it was covered with. It was found by a Charlie Snell, a self-described prospector, a guy who has been described in the local media as a self-taught paleontologist. I bought it from his store in Santa Fe, NM, called
"Dinosaurs & More." Snell goes hunting for dinosaur fossils, using hand tools, paying ranchers and such to be able to dig on their land.

Snell said he found this fossil in Wyoming in a stratum with other dinosaur fossils from the late Cretaceous Period, which ended with the extinction of the dinosaurs c. 65 million years ago. It's from the Lance Formation, a layer of rocks in the western United States named after Lance Creek in Wyoming, laid down from 69 to 65 million years ago, and a productive source of dinosaur fossils.

With its triangular shape, the above piece appears to be the top of a metacarpus, or hand bone, of a large dinosaur such as a triceratops (three-horned dinosaur that looked like a very large rhinoceros) or hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur), according to Ted Daeschler, chair of the Vertebrate Zoology Dept. of the
Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. How the bone tapers suggests that this segment is from a long bone and a large dinosaur. Dinosaur fossils are frequently faked in China, but typically with large, elaborate, and expensive fossils. Some genuine fossils are described as being from dinosaurs when they in fact are from other large animals, though the stratum in which this piece was found provides substantial evidence of its nature.

The pores visible in the interior of the fossil were likely blood vessels. The appearance of blood vessels throughout the entire inside of the bone is similar to mammal bones today and dissimilar to reptile bones today. It may indicate, according to some researchers, that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, relying on their body to regulate their temperature rather than the environment.

Fossils such as this aren't the only remains of dinosaurs. Some of the organic matter in dinoaurs was converted through heat and chemical and biological processes into crude oil, though plankton are thought to be responsible for most of the gasoline and heating oil we use.




















Quartz rock (1 kilogram, 13 x 12 x 6 cm)
c. 100 million years old















Rocks are of three main types: igneous (formed from lava or magma such as the obsidian and pumice illustrated at the top of this page), sedimentary (formed from the compression of mud, sand, shells, or other materials), and metamorphic (formed from high temperatures or pressures acting on igneous or sedimentary rock).

Quartz is a type of sedimentary rock and is the second most common mineral in the Earth's crust, feldspar being the most common. Technically, a rock is combination of minerals, which makes quartz a mineral, not a rock, and a mineral has a crystalline structure, which makes quartz a mineral but not obsidian or pumice, which technically are considered congealed liquids. Quartz when free of impurities is clear, consisting of silica (silicon dioxide), oxygen and silicon being the two most abundant elements in the Earth's crust. Objects as disparate as the previous two illustrated on this page, the obsidian and the dinosaur fossil, also consist primarily or largely of silica.

Silica is the principle component of glass and concrete. Silica in the form of quartz is also found in sand, sandstone, granite, and limestone and is often found amidst gold and silver.

Quartz in the form of amethyst, citrine, ametrine, rose quartz, onyx, agate, chrysoprase, and so on has been used as a gemstone throughout history, but because of its commonness, quartz has never had great commercial value. Early civilizations believed that quartz was permanently frozen ice. Quartz has also been used to make crystal balls. Today, because its electrical properties allow for the creation of signals with very precise frequency, quartz is used in watches and electronic devices. It's also used to make lenses and prisms for optical instruments. Certain elements of the New Age movement believe quartz crystals can be harnessed for personal healing and power.

The above beautifully shaped, colored, and veined specimen is milk quartz, the most common type, which is also known as milky quartz or snow quartz. The translucency is caused by tiny amounts of trapped gas or liquid among the quartz crystals. The veins likely consist of iron oxide infused by groundwater through fissures in the rock caused when it was formed or through later movement. I found this piece while hiking in the Rocky Mountains, specifically Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Most of the Rockies uplifted between 120 million and 50 million years ago, though some portions date from as early as 4 billion years ago. I'm dating the above specimen c. 100 million years old.

Quartz represents crust, the outermost layer of the planet Earth, hard and beautiful.




















Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite (42.9g, 35 x 29 x 22 mm)
c. 4.6 billion years old















Space rocks come in three main varieties: Comets (thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud, both beyond the planets), asteroids (orbit between Mars and Jupiter), and meteoroids. Meteoroids are the smallest of the three and are thought to have originated from collisions of comets or asteroids with one another or with the Moon or Mars. When a meteoroid enters the Earth's atmosphere, it's called a meteor, and when it hits the ground, it's called a meteorite. Meteoroids date from the beginning of the Solar System, making them c. 4.6 billion years old.

Meteorites also come in three main varieties: Stony, iron, and stony-iron. Only about ten percent of meteorites are of the iron type, but they're the ones most clearly recognized as meteorites. Stony meteorites resemble Earth rocks, are more difficult to recognize, and decompose more quickly than iron meteorites. Iron meteorites are thought to have once been the molten metal core of an asteroid or moon.

Meteors are also called "shooting stars," with most being no larger than a grain of sand, glowing white hot as they collide with air molecules at high speed before vaporizing. When larger meteoroids hit the Earth's atmosphere, they typically explode into smaller pieces. Spacecraft reentering the atmosphere have to enter within a narrow range of angles to avoid exploding in the same way.

The above meteorite is a piece of an iron meteor that broke up in the atmosphere. Specifically, it's a Sikhote-Alin meteorite, part of a meteor that exploded about 4.5 km (2.8 miles) above Russia on February 12, 1947, which was the the largest observed meteor fall in modern history. It's named for the Sikhote-Alin Mountains of eastern Siberia where it impacted, about 270 miles northeast of Vladivostok. Pieces are still found today. According to
Roy Gallant, writing in 1996, more than 9,000 pieces have been collected, with that number no doubt appreciably higher today.

The above piece was found by a team of meteorite searchers that set out from Helsinki, Finland. Based upon analyses of similar pieces, it consists of about 93 percent iron, 6 percent nickel (terrestrial rocks rarely contain nickel), and trace amounts of cobalt, copper, phosphorus, sulfur, gallium, germanium, and iridium. It's very dense, about four times as heavy as a typical terrestrial rock of the same size.

The original Sikhote-Alin meteoroid is thought to have weighed between 70 and 100 tons. The largest intact piece weighs 1,745 kg (1.91 tons) and is on display in Moscow. Some of the pieces broke up further when they hit the ground and are called "shrapnel" or fragments. They have a ragged shape. Meteorites such as the above, which didn't break up further when hitting the ground, are called "individuals" and are far less common. The dimples in the surface, called "thumb prints" or "regmaglypts," resulted from the surface having been ablated as the meteor tore through the atmosphere.

Space rocks like this meteorite, but larger, led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, the rise of mammals, and the emergence of Man. Here's a
postage stamp celebrating the Sikhote-Alin meteor fall.




















Gold nugget (0.9g, 6 x 7 x 3 mm)
c. 5 billion years old















Gold goes back to before there was a Sun and Earth, as do all of the elements on Earth.

Almost all of the hydrogen and most of the helium in the Universe were created by the Big Bang at the origin of the Universe 13.7 billion years ago. Hydrogen and helium are the two lightest elements, with most of the observable matter in the Universe today still consisting of hydrogen and helium. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements of life were created within stars before the birth of the Solar System through nuclear fusion near the end of stars' lives. Elements heavier than iron in the Universe were created through "neutron capture" in two ways: the r-process involving the rapid collapse and explosion of massive stars at end of their lives into supernovas, and the s-process involving the slow expansion of second- or third-generation mid-size stars such as the Sun at end of their lives into red giants. It's believed that supernovas account for most gold, silver, platinum, and uranium in the Universe.

Elements created in stars are seeded to the Universe in several ways: through stellar winds throughout the lives of stars, when mid-size stars about the size of the Sun eject their outer layers in the process of becoming red giants, and when massive stars explode into supernovas. It's from the gravitational collapse of this interstellar material, the remnants of previous stars, that the Sun, planets, dwarf planets, moons, comets, asteroids, meteoroids, and interplanetary dust of our Solar System were formed.

The gold in the above nugget was forged during the first few minutes of a supernova, an incredibly powerful explosion of a massive star at the end of its life lasting from several days to several weeks, creating more energy during the same period of time than 100 billion normal stars. I'm dating the above piece c. 5 billion years old. It was found more recently in western Australia by metal detectorists. According to analyses of similar nuggets found there, it consists of 94 to 98 percent gold, making it about 23k gold.

Gold has an illustrious history on Earth. It was one of seven metals known to the ancients and was the first discovered, c. 6000 BC, according to
Alan W. Cramb. (The others were copper, silver, lead, tin, iron, and mercury.) From the earliest times gold has been valued more than other metals, far above its utilitarian worth. It's too soft to be used to make agricultural tools or weapons. It's purely decorative, with lustrous beauty. Because gold is the color of the Sun, giver of light, warmth, and life, it has also taken on religious symbolism. Gold was used by the first civilizations in Sumer and Egypt and earlier as well, by the peoples of prehistoric Europe. The alchemical symbol for gold was the sign of the Sun, a circle with a point at its center. The chemical symbol is Au, which comes from the Latin aurum, meaning "shining dawn."

Not only does gold shine warmly, it keeps its glow too, typically not reacting to its surroundings, even for millennia. Gold can corrode or dissolve in contact with chemicals such as "aqua regia" (a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid), but it's more resistant to corrosion than most metals. Thus, like silver and platinum, gold is considered a noble rather than a base metal. Gold's "incorruptibility" no doubt also played a part in its appeal and religious significance.

With an atomic number of 79 and an atomic weight of approximately 196.97, gold is extremely dense, each atom jam-packed with 79 protons, 118 neutrons, and 79 electrons. The specific gravity of gold is nearly twice that of silver. You can feel the heft, the physicality, of those minuscule atomic particles when you pick up a gold coin, piece of gold jewelry, or small gold nugget such as this.

Gold of course is rare. It typically shows up in small amounts only about 3 to 5 parts per billion in the Earth's crust, hidden away amidst silver, lead, copper, pyrite, quartz, slate, or granite. It has been estimated that all the gold mined in human history amounts to about 150,000 tons.

Gold can be found as alluvium (sediment in flowing rivers and creeks, also called placer deposits), lode deposits (embedded in solid rock, also called reef deposits), nuggets, or dust. Sifting river water with sheepskins for alluvial gold gave rise to the legend of the Golden Fleece. Gold is also present in low concentration in seawater, about 0.01 part per billion. The world's oceans are estimated to contain about 10 million tons of gold, but the low concentration makes extraction uneconomical. Gold is thought to have been concentrated into mineable deposits on land by very hot water under high pressure, which caused smaller parts of it to melt and then later cool and solidify into larger parts. Gold has also weathered out of rocks, with pieces winding up together because of gold's heavy weight.

The color of gold is caused by its absorbing violet and blue light and reflecting yellow and red light. Because gold in pure form is soft and scratches easily, it's usually alloyed with other metal to lend it strength. White metals such as silver, zinc, palladium, and nickel make gold paler. Copper makes it redder. Copper is the only other colored metal besides gold, all others being silvery or gray. Gold can turn blue when alloyed with iron, purple when alloyed with aluminum, and greenish-yellow when alloyed with pure silver.

Gold was used in what were likely the world's first coins, minted in Lydia, Asia Minor, c. 600 BC, in which a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy of electrum was further alloyed with silver and copper. Later ancient gold coins were typically as pure as could be refined using the technology of the times. Still later, copper and/or silver were added to gold to increase the durability of gold coins. Most U.S. gold coins, which were minted for circulation until 1933, are .900 fine (21.6k), with very early ones having slightly more gold (.9167) and some later ones having slightly less (.8992), the gold in all cases being alloyed with copper and/or silver.

Heavy, beautiful, and rare, gold may not represent divinity today from a conventional perspective. But it does represent the colossal forces at work in the Universe, which from another perspective is the same thing.














See Ancient Timeline for a timeline of the Earth and ancient history.

Coin sites:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins

© 2014 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.