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The Archaean controversy in Britain: Part I—The Rocks of St David's

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Early geological investigations in the St David's area (Pembrokeshire) are described, particularly the work of Murchison. In a reconnaissance survey in 1835, he regarded a ridge of rocks at St David's as intrusive in unfossiliferous Cambrian; and the early Survey mapping (chiefly the work of Aveline and Ramsay) was conducted on that assumption, leading to the publication of maps in 1845 and 1857. The latter represented the margins of the St David's ridge as ‘Altered Cambrian'. So the supposedly intrusive ‘syenite' was regarded as younger, and there was no Precambrian. These views were challenged by a local doctor, Henry Hicks, who developed an idea of the ex-Survey palaeontologist John Salter that the rocks of the ridge were stratified and had formed a Precambrian island, round which Cambrian sediments (now confirmed by fossil discoveries) had been deposited. Hicks subsequently proposed subdivision of his Precambrian into ‘Dimetian', ‘Pebidian', and (later) ‘Arvonian', and he attempted correlations with rocks in Shropshire, North Wales, and even North America, seeking to develop the neo-Neptunist ideas of Sterry Hunt. The challenge to the Survey's work was countered in the 1880s by the Director General, Geikie, who showed that Hicks's idea of stratification in the Dimetian was mistaken. A heated controversy developed, several amateur geologists, supported by a group of Cambridge Sedgwickians, forming a coalition of ‘Archaeans' against the Survey. Geikie was supported by Lloyd Morgan. Attention focused particularly on Ogof Lle-sugn Cave and St Non's Arch, with theory/controversy-ladenness of observations evident on both sides. Evidence from an eyewitness student record of a Geological Society meeting reveals the ‘sanit`ized' nature of the official summary of the debate in QJGS . Field mapping early in the twentieth century by J. F. N. Green allowed a compromise consensus to be achieved, but Green's evidence for unconformity between the Cambrian and the Dimetian, obtained by excavation, can no longer be verified, and his consensual history of the area may need revision. Unconformity between the Cambrian and the Pebidian tuffs is not in doubt, however, and Precambrian at St David's is accepted. The study exhibits features of geological controversy and the British geological community in the nineteenth century. It also furnishes a further instance of the great influence of Murchison in nineteenth-century British geology and the side-effects of his controversy with Sedgwick.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: School of Science and Technology Studies, The University of New South Wales, Kensington, New South Wales, 2033, Australia

Publication date: September 1, 1991

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