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May-June 2016

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Media Reviews

Chroniques de Cristalliers (Chronicles of Crystal Seekers) by Sébastien Khayati. Les Éditions du Piat, Saint-Julien-du-Pinet, France. 224 pages; 2014; €45 (hardbound).

Haute-Loire is one of the departments that make up continental France. It lies in the south, bordering both Switzerland and Italy, and much of its geography is both vertical and volcanic. There are some sedimentary deposits in the center and northwest regions, but the productive rocks are granites, gneisses, and mica schists.

French texts tend to be idiosyncratic, and this book is no exception. The table of contents, the conclusion, and the bibliography are buried together on the last page. Additionally, Christian Vialaron is identified only in the preface (p. 2), written by Julien Lebocey, scientific editor of the periodical Le Règne Minéral (The Mineral Kingdom). Lebocey refers to Vialaron as “un archaéologue minier, bien plus qu'un géologue ou qu'un minéralogiste” (a mining archaeologist, much more than a geologist or mineralogist). That is because Vialaron does much of his research amid old texts and maps in libraries and museums and is primarily interested in the history of mining. He is also, however, an accomplished speleologist and supplements his research by descending deep into abandoned mines to match the printed descriptions with the physical evidence that remains. Mines de Plomb en Haute-Loire is one of several books he has written on different mining activities in the region. His other books are on antimony, baryte, fluorite, and arsenic mines in Haute-Loire, and he has published many photographs on mindat.org.

Vialaron follows the preface with a short introduction that lists the parts of the region in which lead was mined, and he says there is evidence the Romans opened at least one of the mines and that recovery has continued since then. The two primary ores of lead in the region are galena (PbS) and semseyite (Pb9Sb8S21). He notes also that although the main lead ore is galena, there are two kinds of galena—one rich in silver, found mostly in metamorphic rocks, and one poor in silver, found primarily in the granite. The semseyite always contains some level of silver. It is found uniquely in the metamorphic rocks and was used for the production of silver, lead, and antimony. Throughout the ages, the lead of Haute-Loire has been used first for simple things—pipes, musket balls, and so on—then developed into special categories such as metal alloys, lead-crystal glass, and ceramic glazes, and today into gasoline additives, batteries, and radiation safety protection.

The third section of the book, also short, is titled simply “Le Plomb dans le département de la Haute-Loire” (Lead in the Department of Haute-Loire). It notes that lead is never found in the volcanic or sedimentary rocks, only in the granites, gneisses, migmatites, and mica schists that also make up the region. Vialaron goes into an account of the development of the lead deposits and a detailed discussion of the types of veins and their associated mineralogy—some with antimony, some with fluorite, some with baryte, some with quartz, and so on. His detail is such that it tends to get confusing, particularly when one speaks of named veins, concession holders, and which minerals have been reported only by collectors. Fortunately, he includes three well-laid-out tables, one listing the type of formation versus the metallic elements found, one listing the names of the deposits versus the minerals found (and their abundance), and one listing minerals by class versus the deposits. For example, table 1 shows that Le Dreyt, a vein of quartz with green and yellow fluorite, has major zinc, copper, and lead with accessory bismuth, arsenic, iron, antimony, silver, and nickel, and minor gold and germanium; table 2 shows that the La Communal vein has some galena and zinkenite, but the dominant lead minerals are bournonite and semseyite with rare boulangerite and fülöppite and a sprinkling of others; and table 3 shows that the sulfosalt freieslebenite was found in the Les Ardennes, Les Combettes, and Lair deposits.

Seven pages of photographs follow, illustrating the sulfides, sulfosalts (copper and silver), sulfates, carbonates, arsenates, phosphates, molybdates, and oxides of lead. The photographs are good and, with perhaps minor exceptions, show specimens from localities in the region.

The “meat” of the volume is in the following 132 pages that describe the mines, the veins, their minerals, and, above all, their history. Vialaron has gone to enormous lengths to document the discovery, development, and eventual demise of each location. He quotes and in some cases reproduces old letters, certificates, and notices and indicates the traces of the veins and the areas that have been investigated by drawings and maps he has personally made at the site. He gives strike and dip, vein widths, and associated minerals found on the dumps and adds photographs of the entrances, adits, infrastructure (if any remains), and often the original works when the mine was in operation. He also often includes photographs of any minerals found there, most in micromount sizes.

In his very short (ten lines) conclusion, Vialaron points out that lead is no longer mined in Haute-Loire and that the mines are now closed (the last in 1992) and overgrown. He goes on to note that their existence is now buried in Napoleonic tax documents or old topographic maps and that collective memory no longer guards the information. In his closing words, he says that he hopes this book will save the mines of yesteryear from oblivion.

The book itself, printed on standard ISO A4 paper (210 × 297 mm), is a little tall for North American tastes, but the pages do accommodate Vialaron's drawings and photographs in better placement than a smaller size would have allowed. That is an advantage, although with a soft cover, and a thickness of roughly 12 mm, it's a trifle too floppy to stand, unsupported, on a shelf. It is also a little difficult to identify its intended audience. It is primarily historical but could be a guide to collectors, except that it doesn't mention how much material is likely to be available or in what form. Still, he does credit well-known micromount collectors Georges Favreau, Guy Bernadi, and Jean-Luc Designolle with reporting species such as caledonite and leadhillite, so there is collecting going on.

In short, it's an intriguing book, clearly a work of intense research and scholarship, and of great value as a historical record. It is worth the price just for the effort Vialaron has made to preserve mineralogical history.

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