Stratigraphy is a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification). It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary and layered volcanic rocks. Stratigraphy has two related subfields: lithostratigraphy (lithologic stratigraphy) and biostratigraphy (biologic stratigraphy).

The Permian through Jurassic strata of the Colorado Plateau area of southeastern Utah demonstrate the principles of stratigraphy.

Historical development

Smith fossils1
Engraving from William Smith's monograph on identifying strata based on fossils

Catholic priest Nicholas Steno established the theoretical basis for stratigraphy when he introduced the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality and the principle of lateral continuity in a 1669 work on the fossilization of organic remains in layers of sediment.

The first practical large-scale application of stratigraphy was by William Smith in the 1790s and early 19th century. Known as the "Father of English geology",[1] Smith recognized the significance of strata or rock layering and the importance of fossil markers for correlating strata; he created the first geologic map of England. Other influential applications of stratigraphy in the early 19th century were by Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart, who studied the geology of the region around Paris.

Quebrada de Cafayate, Salta (Argentina)
Strata in Cafayate (Argentina)


Geology of Cyprus-Chalk
Chalk layers in Cyprus, showing sedimentary layering

Variation in rock units, most obviously displayed as visible layering, is due to physical contrasts in rock type (lithology). This variation can occur vertically as layering (bedding), or laterally, and reflects changes in environments of deposition (known as facies change). These variations provide a lithostratigraphy or lithologic stratigraphy of the rock unit. Key concepts in stratigraphy involve understanding how certain geometric relationships between rock layers arise and what these geometries imply about their original depositional environment. The basic concept in stratigraphy, called the law of superposition, states: in an undeformed stratigraphic sequence, the oldest strata occur at the base of the sequence.

Chemostratigraphy studies the changes in the relative proportions of trace elements and isotopes within and between lithologic units. Carbon and oxygen isotope ratios vary with time, and researchers can use those to map subtle changes that occurred in the paleoenvironment. This has led to the specialized field of isotopic stratigraphy.

Cyclostratigraphy documents the often cyclic changes in the relative proportions of minerals (particularly carbonates), grain size, thickness of sediment layers (varves) and fossil diversity with time, related to seasonal or longer term changes in palaeoclimates.


Biostratigraphy or paleontologic stratigraphy is based on fossil evidence in the rock layers. Strata from widespread locations containing the same fossil fauna and flora are said to be correlatable in time. Biologic stratigraphy was based on William Smith's principle of faunal succession, which predated, and was one of the first and most powerful lines of evidence for, biological evolution. It provides strong evidence for the formation (speciation) and extinction of species. The geologic time scale was developed during the 19th century, based on the evidence of biologic stratigraphy and faunal succession. This timescale remained a relative scale until the development of radiometric dating, which gave it and the stratigraphy it was based on an absolute time framework, leading to the development of chronostratigraphy.

One important development is the Vail curve, which attempts to define a global historical sea-level curve according to inferences from worldwide stratigraphic patterns. Stratigraphy is also commonly used to delineate the nature and extent of hydrocarbon-bearing reservoir rocks, seals, and traps of petroleum geology.


Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that places an absolute age, rather than a relative age on rock strata. The branch is concerned with deriving geochronological data for rock units, both directly and inferentially, so that a sequence of time-relative events that created the rocks formation can be derived. The ultimate aim of chronostratigraphy is to place dates on the sequence of deposition of all rocks within a geological region, and then to every region, and by extension to provide an entire geologic record of the Earth.

A gap or missing strata in the geological record of an area is called a stratigraphic hiatus. This may be the result of a halt in the deposition of sediment. Alternatively, the gap may be due to removal by erosion, in which case it may be called a stratigraphic vacuity.[2][3] It is called a hiatus because deposition was on hold for a period of time.[4] A physical gap may represent both a period of non-deposition and a period of erosion.[3] A geologic fault may cause the appearance of a hiatus.[5]


Example of magnetostratigraphy. Magnetic stripes are the result of reversals of the Earth's magnetic poles and seafloor spreading. New oceanic crust is magnetized as it forms and then it moves away from the midocean ridge in both directions.

Magnetostratigraphy is a chronostratigraphic technique used to date sedimentary and volcanic sequences. The method works by collecting oriented samples at measured intervals throughout a section. The samples are analyzed to determine their detrital remanent magnetism (DRM), that is, the polarity of Earth's magnetic field at the time a stratum was deposited. For sedimentary rocks this is possible because, as they fall through the water column, very fine-grained magnetic minerals (< 17 μm) behave like tiny compasses, orienting themselves with Earth's magnetic field. Upon burial, that orientation is preserved. For volcanic rocks, magnetic minerals, which form in the melt, orient themselves with the ambient magnetic field, and are fixed in place upon crystallization of the lava.

Oriented paleomagnetic core samples are collected in the field; mudstones, siltstones, and very fine-grained sandstones are the preferred lithologies because the magnetic grains are finer and more likely to orient with the ambient field during deposition. If the ancient magnetic field were oriented similar to today's field (North Magnetic Pole near the North Rotational Pole), the strata would retain a normal polarity. If the data indicate that the North Magnetic Pole were near the South Rotational Pole, the strata would exhibit reversed polarity.

Results of the individual samples are analyzed by removing the natural remanent magnetization (NRM) to reveal the DRM. Following statistical analysis, the results are used to generate a local magnetostratigraphic column that can then be compared against the Global Magnetic Polarity Time Scale.

This technique is used to date sequences that generally lack fossils or interbedded igneous rocks. The continuous nature of the sampling means that it is also a powerful technique for the estimation of sediment-accumulation rates.

See also


  1. ^ Davies G.L.H. (2007). Whatever is Under the Earth the Geological Society of London 1807-2007. London: Geological Society. p. 78. ISBN 9781862392144.
  2. ^ SEPM Strata, Society for Sedimentary Geology, Terminology=hiatus
  3. ^ a b Martinsen, O. J. et al. (1999) "Cenozoic development of the Norwegian margin 60–64N: sequences and sedimentary response to variable basin physiography and tectonic setting" pp. 293–304 In Fleet, A. J. and Boldy, S. A. R. (editors) (1999) Petroleum Geology of Northwest Europe Geological Society, London, page 295, ISBN 978-1-86239-039-3
  4. ^ Kearey, Philip (2001). Dictionary of Geology (2nd ed.) London, New York, etc.: Penguin Reference, London, p. 123. ISBN 978-0-14-051494-0.
  5. ^ Chapman, Richard E. (1983) Petroleum Geology Elsevier Scientific, Amsterdam, page 33, ISBN 978-0-444-42165-4

Further reading

  • Christopherson, R. W., 2008. Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography, 7th ed., New York: Pearson Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-600598-8
  • Montenari, M., 2016. Stratigraphy and Timescales, 1st ed., Amsterdam: Academic Press (Elsevier). ISBN 978-0-12-811549-7

External links

Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs are a series of desert mountains and cliffs in western Colorado and eastern Utah, in the western United States. They are so named because the cliffs of Cretaceous sandstone that cap many of the south-facing buttes appear similar to a shelf of books.

Canadian Shield

The Canadian Shield, also called the Laurentian Plateau, or Bouclier canadien (French), is a large area of exposed Precambrian igneous and high-grade metamorphic rocks (geological shield) that forms the ancient geological core of the North American continent (the North American Craton or Laurentia). Composed of igneous rock resulting from its long volcanic history, the area is covered by a thin layer of soil. With a deep, common, joined bedrock region in eastern and central Canada, it stretches north from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean, covering over half of Canada; it also extends south into the northern reaches of the United States. Human population is sparse, and industrial development is minimal, while mining is prevalent.


Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that studies the age of rock strata in relation to time.

The ultimate aim of chronostratigraphy is to arrange the sequence of deposition and the time of deposition of all rocks within a geological region, and eventually, the entire geologic record of the Earth.

The standard stratigraphic nomenclature is a chronostratigraphic system based on palaeontological intervals of time defined by recognised fossil assemblages (biostratigraphy). The aim of chronostratigraphy is to give a meaningful age date to these fossil assemblage intervals and interfaces.


In geology, a facies (pronounced variously as , or ['faysheez', 'fayseez' or 'fash-eez']; plural also 'facies') is a body of rock with specified characteristics, which can be any observable attribute of rocks (such as their overall appearance, composition, or condition of formation), and the changes that may occur in those attributes over a geographic area.

It is the sum total characteristics of a rock including its chemical, physical, and biological features that distinguishes it from adjacent rock.The term facies was introduced by the Swiss geologist Amanz Gressly in 1838 and was part of his significant contribution to the foundations of modern stratigraphy, which replaced the earlier notions of Neptunism.

Geologic time scale

The geologic time scale (GTS) is a system of chronological dating that relates geological strata (stratigraphy) to time. It is used by geologists, paleontologists, and other Earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships of events that have occurred during Earth's history. The table of geologic time spans, presented here, agree with the nomenclature, dates and standard color codes set forth by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).

Geological formation

A formation or geological formation is the fundamental unit of lithostratigraphy. A formation consists of a certain amount of rock strata that have a comparable lithology, facies or other similar properties. Formations are not defined by the thickness of their rock strata; therefore the thickness of different formations can vary widely.

The concept of formally defined layers or strata is central to the geologic discipline of stratigraphy. Groups of strata are divided into formations, which are divided into members.

Geological period

A geological period is one of the several subdivisions of geologic time enabling cross-referencing of rocks and geologic events from place to place.

These periods form elements of a hierarchy of divisions into which geologists have split the Earth's history.

Eons and eras are larger subdivisions than periods while periods themselves may be divided into epochs and ages.

The rocks formed during a period belong to a stratigraphic unit called a system.

Group (stratigraphy)

A group in stratigraphy is a lithostratigraphic unit, a part of the geologic record or rock column that consists of defined rock strata. Groups are generally divided into individual formations. Groups may sometimes be divided into "subgroups" and are themselves sometimes grouped into "supergroups".

Some well known groups of northwestern Europe have in the past also been used as units for chronostratigraphy and geochronology. These are the Rotliegend and Zechstein (both of Permian age); Buntsandstein, Muschelkalk, and Keuper (Triassic in age); Lias, Dogger, and Malm (Jurassic in age) groups. Because of the confusion this causes, the official geologic timescale of the ICS does not contain any of these names any longer.


The Holocene ( HOL-ə-seen, HOL-oh-, HOH-lə-, HOH-loh-) is the current geological epoch. It began approximately 11,650 cal years before present, after the last glacial period, which concluded with the Holocene glacial retreat. The Holocene and the preceding Pleistocene together form the Quaternary period. The Holocene has been identified with the current warm period, known as MIS 1. It is considered by some to be an interglacial period within the Pleistocene Epoch.The Holocene corresponds with rapid proliferation, growth and impacts of the human species worldwide, including all of its written history, technological revolutions, development of major civilizations, and overall significant transition towards urban living in the present. Human impacts on modern-era Earth and its ecosystems may be considered of global significance for future evolution of living species, including approximately synchronous lithospheric evidence, or more recently hydrospheric and atmospheric evidence of human impacts. In July 2018, the International Union of Geological Sciences split the Holocene epoch into three distinct subsections, Greenlandian (11,700 years ago to 8,326 years ago), Northgrippian (8,326 years ago to 4,200 years ago) and Meghalayan (4,200 years ago to the present), as proposed by International Commission on Stratigraphy. The boundary stratotype of Meghalayan is a speleothem in Mawmluh cave in India, and the global auxiliary stratotype is an ice core from Mount Logan in Canada.The name Holocene comes from the Ancient Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning "entirely recent".

International Commission on Stratigraphy

The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), sometimes referred to by the unofficial name "International Stratigraphic Commission" is a daughter or major subcommittee grade scientific daughter organization that concerns itself with stratigraphical, geological, and geochronological matters on a global scale.

It is a subordinate body of the International Union of Geological Sciences—of which it is the largest body within the organisation—and of which it is essentially a permanent working subcommittee that meets far more regularly than the quadrennial meetings scheduled by the IUGS, when it meets as a congress or membership of the whole.

Law of superposition

The law of superposition is an axiom that forms one of the bases of the sciences of geology, archaeology, and other fields dealing with geological stratigraphy. It is a form of relative dating. In its plainest form, it states that in undeformed stratigraphic sequences, the oldest strata will be at the bottom of the sequence. This is important to stratigraphic dating, which assumes that the law of superposition holds true and that an object cannot be older than the materials of which it is composed.


A reef is a bar of rock, sand, coral or similar material, lying beneath the surface of water.

Many reefs result from natural, abiotic processes—deposition of sand, wave erosion planing down rock outcrops, etc.—but the best known reefs are the coral reefs of tropical waters developed through biotic processes dominated by corals and coralline algae.

Artificial reefs (e.g. shipwrecks) sometimes have a role in enhancing the physical complexity of featureless sand bottoms, in order to attract a diverse assemblage of organisms, especially algae and fish.

Earth's largest reef system is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, at a length of over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles).

Stage (stratigraphy)

In chronostratigraphy, a stage is a succession of rock strata laid down in a single age on the geologic timescale, which usually represents millions of years of deposition. A given stage of rock and the corresponding age of time will by convention have the same name, and the same boundaries.

Rock series are divided into stages, just as geological epochs are divided into ages. Stages can be divided into smaller stratigraphic units called chronozones. (See chart at right for full terminology hierarchy.) Stages may also be divided into substages or indeed grouped as superstages.The term faunal stage is sometimes used, referring to the fact that the same fauna (animals) are found throughout the layer (by definition).

Stratigraphic unit

A stratigraphic unit is a volume of rock of identifiable origin and relative age range that is defined by the distinctive and dominant, easily mapped and recognizable petrographic, lithologic or paleontologic features (facies) that characterize it.

Units must be mappable and distinct from one another, but the contact need not be particularly distinct. For instance, a unit may be defined by terms such as "when the sandstone component exceeds 75%".

Stratigraphy (archaeology)

Stratigraphy is a key concept to modern archaeological theory and practice. Modern excavation techniques are based on stratigraphic principles. The concept derives from the geological use of the idea that sedimentation takes place according to uniform principles.

When archaeological finds are below the surface of the ground (as is most commonly the case), the identification of the context of each find is vital in enabling the archaeologist to draw conclusions about the site and about the nature and date of its occupation. It is the archaeologist's role to attempt to discover what contexts exist and how they came to be created. Archaeological stratification or sequence is the dynamic superimposition of single units of stratigraphy, or contexts.

Contexts are single events or actions that leave discrete, detectable traces in the archaeological sequence or stratigraphy. They can be deposits (such as the back-fill of a ditch), structures (such as walls), or "zero thickness surfaciques", better known as "cuts". Cuts represent actions that remove other solid contexts such as fills, deposits, and walls. An example would be a ditch "cut" through earlier deposits. Stratigraphic relationships are the relationships created between contexts in time, representing the chronological order in which they were created. One example would be a ditch and the back-fill of said ditch. The temporal relationship of "the fill" context to the ditch "cut" context is such that "the fill" occurred later in the sequence; you have to dig a ditch before you can back-fill it. A relationship that is later in the sequence is sometimes referred to as "higher" in the sequence, and a relationship that is earlier, "lower", though this does not refer necessarily to the physical location of the context. It is more useful to think of "higher" as it relates to the context's position in a Harris matrix, a two-dimensional representation of a site's formation in space and time.


In geology and related fields, a stratum (plural: strata) is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil, or igneous rock that were formed at the Earth's surface, with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers. The "stratum" is the fundamental unit in a stratigraphic column and forms the basis of the study of stratigraphy.

System (stratigraphy)

A system in stratigraphy is a unit of rock layers that were laid down together within the same corresponding geological period. The associated period is a chronological time unit, a part of the geological time scale, while the system is a unit of chronostratigraphy. Systems are unrelated to lithostratigraphy, which subdivides rock layers on their lithology. Systems are subdivisions of erathems and are themselves divided into series and stages.


The Tournaisian is in the ICS geologic timescale the lowest stage or oldest age of the Mississippian, the oldest subsystem of the Carboniferous. The Tournaisian age lasted from 358.9 Ma to 346.7 Ma. It is preceded by the Famennian (the uppermost stage of the Devonian) and is followed by the Viséan.

Type locality (geology)

Type locality, also called type area, or type section, is the locality where a particular rock type, stratigraphic unit or mineral species is first identified. If the stratigraphic unit in a locality is layered, it is called a stratotype, whereas the standard of reference for unlayered rocks is the type locality.The term is similar to the term type site in archaeology or the term type specimen in biology.

Geologic principles and processes
Stratigraphic principles
Petrologic principles
Geomorphologic processes
Sediment transport
History of geology
Сomposition and structure
Historical geology
Lists of fossiliferous stratigraphic units by preserved taxon


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