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March-April 2011

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Media Reviews: March/April 2011

Kärnten: Land der Schätze und Geschichten (Carinthia: Land of Treasures and History), extraLapis No. 38, by Michael Wachtler and Georg Kandutsch. Christian Weise Verlag, Munich. 102 pages (in German); 2010; €17.80 (€14.20 for subscribers), softbound

Issue No. 38 of extraLapis is a little different from the previous issues with which we have become familiar. It has the same slick appearance and the same fine photography, but this is the first one we've seen that includes poetry and discourses on old shoes, walnut shells, and cherry pits. I'm not going to attempt to evaluate the poetry (it loses in the translation), but the rest do have some connection with traditional publications in mineralogy, and I'll mention them later in this review.

Ostensibly, the publication is divided into nine sections or chapters, but each section is subdivided further into smaller units, each titled in the same type size and font as the section itself. That makes it seem as if there are many more sections than intended, but one gets used to it.

Carinthia encompasses the Eastern Alps and lies in the southern region of Austria, bordering Italy on the southwest, and Slovenia on the southeast. It is an old, well-known area, home in his youth of the famous polymath Paracelsus (Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541) and of the great mineralogist Franz Xaver Freiherr von Wulfen. Long before them, however, its mineral wealth attracted attention during the Bronze Age and the ascendancy of the Roman Empire. The first section of the book, Ein grosser Schatzkasten (A great treasure chest), illustrates this well with pictures of quartz crystals and moulds for gold casting found during the excavations at the former Roman settlement of Magdalensberg (south of Klagenfurt). Later sections show copper tools from long before Roman times. Also illustrated are those minerals first discovered in the area, among which, of course, the “star” is wulfenite, though hydrozincite, löllingite, mallestigite, and ilsemannite are not far behind. One particularly striking photograph is of a brilliant red agate from Koschuta.

One thing that should be borne in mind for this book is that the subtitle is Treasures and History. Unlike most of the other extraLapis issues, this one emphasizes history—and understandably so. Carinthia does have a lot of history as well as a lot of minerals, and the two are inextricably combined. Thus, between the photographs of gorgeous scepter quartzes and beautiful pink fluorite octahedra, one must expect mention both of the men (most are men, though there are women) who dug for them, and of the time period in which they operated. Particularly poignant is the picture on page 96 of a skeleton huddled under a large rock at an altitude of 2,942 meters (9,650 feet). The secret of his death remains with him, but the fact that he was so high gives an indication of a prospecting trip, and the date on his coins (1778) lets us know roughly how long he has lain there.

That brings us to the old shoes, walnut shells, and cherry pits. Shrinking glaciers today are revealing evidence of gold workers from the period of, or just before, the Little Ice Age that started in the sixteenth century. A landslide covered the workings, and glacial ice covered that. Now we find scraps of clothing, leather shoes that are so small they seem childlike, and the shells and pits of the walnuts and cherries that formed their daily food as they worked. The treasure chest of Carinthia has been open for a very long time.

I would not want to give the impression that the sense of history is overwhelming; it is not, but in many ways it is the thread that binds the book together. Aside from that, the book is a standard production featuring excellent descriptions and photography of the minerals of Carinthia, the localities in which they are found, and at its conclusion, a good listing of the museums and private collections in which they may be seen. My only complaint is that there is no map of Carinthia except a small and somewhat uninformative sketch on the final page. A good map would have been a real help.

ExtraLapis No. 38 joins the series with the professional appearance and production values that we have come to expect, although it might be heavier going for those who do not know German. I recommend it for the serious collector.

Quintin Wight
  Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Mesozoic Fossils II, the Cretaceous Period by Bruce L. Stinchcomb. Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA. 176 pages; 2009; $29.99 (softbound)

As are the other entries in his series of fossil books, Bruce Stinchcomb's Mesozoic Fossils II, the Cretaceous Period is a color photographic atlas of fossils and outcrops—in this case, those dating to the end of the “Age of Reptiles.” The 176-page, six-chapter book is aimed at fossil aficionados. Stinchcomb's love of fossils, particularly Cretaceous-aged material, is obvious. Illustrated fossils are principally from the plant and animal kingdoms, whereas microfossils are purposefully not treated (which is all right). The selection of fossils depicted is based upon those available in the retail market and those that the author personally collected. Every fossil photograph has an explanatory caption that includes the scientific name, stratigraphy, and locality, plus commentary. Each fossil specimen is given an estimated retail value, though I would have preferred less emphasis on the economic aspects of fossil collecting.

The first chapter introduces the Cretaceous by discussing dates, chalk successions, the etymology of Cretaceous, the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary, tectonic and igneous activity, and sea-level change. Stinchcomb emphasizes the “objects of beauty” aspect of fossils and has an interesting discussion about collectors versus professionals. This chapter also has a decent set of photographs showing various North American Cretaceous outcrops, some of which are obviously richly fossiliferous. I haven't collected Cretaceous fossils, and I quickly found myself intrigued and itching to go into the field. A short summary of significant Cretaceous fossil biotas and lagerstätten (soft-bodied fossil deposits) finishes the chapter.

Chapter 2 covers Early Cretaceous fossils. There is a discussion of the two-part division of the Cretaceous and the paleontological reasons for it. More than one hundred photos depict a variety of Early Cretaceous plant, marine invertebrate, insect, fish, aquatic reptile, and dinosaur remains. “Reversed saxophone”-shaped ammonites are illustrated and were apparently perceived by early paleontologists as disreputable fossils—this interesting history-of-geology tidbit was news to me (and I'm a historian of paleontology)! The Crato/Santana Formation insects from Brazil are spectacular, as are the fish-bearing concretions from the same unit.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 have more than three hundred photos of Late Cretaceous fossils, including stromatolites, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates (dinosaurs and nondinosaurs). Some of the fossils in these chapters are shown next to the equivalent illustrations in Charles Lyell's Elements of Geology. Especially appealing to me are the stromatolite-enveloped igneous clasts (wow!), photos of amber-bearing coal outcrops in Alaska, the inoceramid bivalves, the fossil razor clams, K-T boundary tsunami bed fossil concentrations, and slabs of various disarticulated fish—these contrast nicely with articulated specimens.

Chapter 6 presents a surprisingly fascinating case study of how Cretaceous fossils are collected, identified, and interpreted in terms of paleoenvironmental setting. Stinchcomb participated in the excavation of Missouri's only known dinosaur locality. Dinosaurs, crushed and stacked turtles, and other fossils were retrieved and inferred to have been deposited in a cliff-lined watering hole during the Cretaceous. Turtles fell out of the sky! Want the details? Read this chapter.

The book needed a good round of editing or proofing, which would have caught mistakes in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, italicization, terminology, and so on that are scattered throughout. The background colors and textures chosen for many of the fossil photos are sometimes distracting, and the contrast is unnecessarily high in many images. Some of the cited absolute ages are a bit out-of-date. I would prefer more locality information accompanying the wonderful outcrop pictures. I bristled at Spinosaurus being called a raptor—that's more of a Hollywood term. There is a bit too much criticism of vertebrate paleontologists' attitudes toward proper locality/stratigraphic documentation. Collectors should be gently reminded that there is no such thing as too much information. Actual fossil objects and accompanying information should be valued and appreciated. Oh, and … taxonomy is an art? Please don't say that, not even in jest.

Mesozoic Fossils II, the Cretaceous Period does a decent job of photo-documenting the macroscopic remains of Cretaceous life. This book will be of interest to fossil collectors at all levels, rockhounds, geology students, and educators. I've already shown some images in my historical geology classes.

James St. John
Ohio State University, Newark, Newark, Ohio

Gemstones: A Complete Color Reference for Precious and Semiprecious Stones of the World by Karen Hurrell and Mary L. Johnson. Metro Books, New York. 319 pages; 2008; $11.99 (softbound)

This interesting book is a rather traditional treatment of gemstones that includes many mineral species, cut stones of which can be found only in collections rather than in the stocks of jewelry stores. It begins with an introduction followed by a chapter titled “The World of Gemstones.” Beginning on page 22 is the bulk of the book, a chapter titled “The Gemstone Directory.” Here, 130 gems, gem minerals, natural glasses, and organic gems are covered individually. Each is shown in both its natural state and cut form. All are discussed in terms of characteristics, properties, and uses. Also included for most are comments on cutting, setting, and valuing. This chapter is followed by the “Gemstone Gallery,” a selection of cut-stone photographs, presented twelve to the page, that quickly reviews those featured in the previous chapter. The last chapter treats the identification and collection of minerals and gemstones. The book ends with an index and acknowledgments section.

Although most of the technical information is accurate and useful, the organization of the book's major chapter, although understandable to the mineralogist, may leave most readers somewhat confused. Rather than a traditional organization by decreasing importance or by alphabetical distribution, the gems are arranged by crystal system. So, we find diamond followed by pyrope and the other garnets. The emerald, ruby, and sapphire, gems of great importance and found immediately following diamond in many books, are discovered only by thumbing through until hexagonal gems are found, or by going to the index. Thus, ruby and the various sapphires are sandwiched between gaspeite and eudialite, hardly a fitting place for such elegant gems. Quartz follows benitoite, and each silica variety is treated separately and equally. Therefore, these include the sequence rose quartz and smoky quartz; rock crystal; amethyst; citrine; aventurine; milky quartz; chatoyant quartz; quartz with inclusions; agate; fire agate; onyx, sard, and sardonyx; chrysoprase; jasper: carnelian; and bloodstone. This results in the quartz family being given about fifteen times the treatment of diamond. Somehow this does not seem equitable.

The book's illustrations, which have been assembled from a number of sources, the most prevalent of which is DK Images, are nicely done although some of the subject stones could have been of better quality (the cut emerald, for example). There are a few other issues that leave one wondering. The photo of the pink sapphire looks for all the world like a spinel crystal, the title for the cordierite section is “Lolite” rather than “Iolite,” and I discover that Tsumeb is a notable locality for gem celestine. In short, the book should have received a final tight technical edit. When turning to the “acknowledgments” to find out who did the editing, one discovers that this section is only a page of photo credits. I point out these weaknesses because there is some very useful information in this book, and much work has gone into its preparation. Its value is diminished when easily correctable issues that could have been dealt with early on have somehow survived. Still, the book is not expensive and does present a good summary of gemstone and related mineral information.

Robert B. Cook
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

Gems and Gemstones—Timeless Natural Beauty of the Mineral World by Lance Grande and Allison Augustyn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 369 pages; 2009; $45 plus shipping and handling (hardbound)

There are perhaps a half-dozen great museums in the United States that contain important natural history collections, of which The Field Museum in Chicago is one. Recently, the new and dramatically expanded Grainger Hall of Gems was opened, and coincident with this important event was the publication of this book. The coauthors are eminently suited for the task, as the first author is curator in the geology department and head of collections and research for the museum, and the second author is a museum funding specialist and exhibition developer (including the new hall of gems).

This rather elegant book consists of thirteen chapters. After a short foreword and preface are chapters titled the “Introduction to Gems” and “Formation of Gems.” These are followed by chapters on the “Classification of Inorganic Gems” and “Inorganic Gem Types.” This latter chapter is the longest in the book and methodically describes the gems and gemstone families, beginning with diamond and ending with turquoise. Within this lengthy discussion, the tourmaline-, garnet-, pyroxene-, and feldspar-group gems are discussed with separate sections on the specific group members. Different gem varieties are then discussed separately within each species section. For example, hessonite, tsavorite, rosolite, and leuco are discussed under the grossular portion of the garnet-group section. Next we find two chapters dealing with “Organic Gems” in which pearls, noble coral, amber, and ivory are treated. A separate chapter is devoted to “Precious Metals” (primarily gold) and another to “Synthetic Gems, Simulant Gems, and Augmentation.” Then follows an interesting chapter on “Mining.” The final three chapters are relatively short and cover “Ethics”; “Folklore, Mysticism, and Magic”; and “Birthstones.” The book closes with a good historical treatment of “The Field Museum's Gem Halls,” a description of the new hall's exhibition team, some final words and acknowledgments, a glossary, and list of references. It contains several indexes including one for gems, gemstones, and other mineral names, and a final subject index.

This book is particularly well done, and other museums should take note of its style; rather comprehensive treatment of gems, jewelry, and related minerals; and classy presentation. It is copiously illustrated with photographs of the museum's best items, taken by John Weinstein and the senior author. Each photograph contains, among other information, collection catalogue numbers. The mix of photographs of gem rough and crystals with unmounted cut stones and finished jewelry and related items is particularly well presented, and it is clear that each page has been designed to generate the greatest impact. For instance, a single page contains photographs of two superb benitoite specimens, a cut gem, and a finished bracelet, all composed against a very effective stark black background.

Gems and Gemstones should sell well, particularly at the museum's store. The cover is eye-catching, and its interior is certainly worth the price. For those of us who will likely not get to visit the museum's new gem hall, it is, no doubt, the next best thing. I heartily endorse it for your library.

Robert B. Cook
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

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