Rock Hunting: Do You Have Petrified Wood Fever?
Petrified wood proved to be an early collector’s gateway from fossils to minerals. In the lowlands of New Jersey there were many more opportunities to find fossils than minerals. Initially these were mostly small fossil molds of shells and crinoids. All in all a fun variety of ancient creatures for grade school specimen boxes, but not especially riveting as display pieces. The discovery of petrified wood put a bigger idea in my head.
ABOVE: Agate petrified wood from the western deserts contain a breathtaking array of colors.
These were fossils that could also be displayed! Petrified wood specimens tended to be chunky with some weight behind them, hence more authority and to my early thinking, more shelf-worthy. It’s been written that this local example is a form of fossil cypress tree that once flourished in the warmer climate of prehistoric New Jersey. I don’t know if that premise has ever been definitive so take it with a grain of salt because it could be difficult at best to identify a specific fossil wood by its grain. Tree families aside, for me, petrified wood was the most sought after fossil for a time.
So where do the minerals come into the story?
It took a while, but as it turns out, the sandy-orange and pale petrified wood found locally is possibly the dullest anyone is likely to find. Once I saw samples of things like colorful agatized petrified wood and chalcedony limb casts, it fueled a desire to find other types. While all fossils are made of minerals in some fashion, the endless variation of material like agate probably switched on the inner light bulb that fossils could be made of different minerals and by extension those minerals might be interesting in themselves. The agate trail was not far away. Petrified wood remains as interesting today as it was in the beginning. It’s still a gem show thrill when I spot a new variation like the quartz crystal encrusted petrified wood of Alabama or petrified wood replaced by more exotic quartz minerals like opal.
Scott Stepanski is a mineral collector and co-author of Gem Trails of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He also produces the world’s largest selection of mineral and fossil rubber stamps at http://buttersidedownstamps.com.