Unearthing the Underworld: A Natural History of Rocks | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Unearthing the Underworld: A Natural History of Rocks

Unearthing the Underworld: A Natural History of Rocks
by Ken McNamara

Reaction Books, London, 2023
296 pp., illus. 43 col., 30 b/w. Trade, $25
ISBN: 978914 718 6.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Leggett
June 2024

Rocks are those things you pick up on long walks, such as when exploring Antarctica. A collection of rocks was recovered long after the British expedition of1901 had perished. Following analysis the stones and the fossilised vegetation revealed a story of Earth turned on its head. It was fires not The Flood that had led to the extinction of 90% of all living species during the Permian era 250million years back when the frozen continent was a tropical jungle.

A rock becomes a stone when it fits easily into the hand, pressing into consciousness the vast ages and events since formation underground or beneath the sea. It is a record of its making, with a granularity that can describe weather conditions and seasons, atmospheres, polarity changes and the combinations of countless chemistries, as often as not involving the organic world of bacteria and other cellular entities as in the case of flint, transposed from layers of chalk. Rocks emerge following the concerted effect of massive planetary and even cosmologically generated forces. Flints have been essential for the development of tool-using humans. A stone in the hand is a sample of processes, a veritable database of events occurring at some point in the Earth's four-billion-year history.

This volume unearths 300 years of writing about the evidence that was simply lying about. Layers, whole strata: of paper and more paper, from the Biblical flood to when gentlemen researchers accepted the evidence of the fossil record as being tied to the making of minerals and fuels, exploited by humans ever since, to the point where such activity now approaches a finality. The narrative is lucidly pursued with illustrations and evidence gathered from all the seven continents, revealing, like the text, the complexity of the substances and actions involved in developing not only our planet and the countless creatures that have inhabited it, but also establishing that the discipline of geology is not just about, or at the service of, commerce and industry. This is an excellent introduction to the subject, 'with a welter of evidence-based stories telling of evolution and extinction in the biological world; of changing climates; of the rise and fall of seas and great forests; and of a planet ravaged by wildfires. "Ignore rocks at your peril"! warns the author. Readers will doubtlessly be enthused to follow-up studies, for which there is a cornucopia of references.