Genesiology of Gold - Auriferous Lodes


Up to a comparatively recent time it was considered heretical for any one to advance the theory that gold had been deposited where found by any other agency than that of fire. As late as 1860 Mr. Henry Rosales convinced himself, and apparently the Victorian Government also, that quartz veins with their enclosed metal had been ejected from the interior of the earth in a molten state. His essay, which is very ingenious and cleverly written, obtained a prize which the Government had offered, but probably Mr. Rosales himself would not adduce the same arguments in support of the volcanic or igneous theory to-day. His phraseology is very technical; so much so that the ordinary inquirer will find it somewhat difficult to follow his reasoning or understand his arguments, which have apparently been founded only on the occurrence of gold in some of the earlier discovered quartz lodes, and the conclusions at which he arrived are not borne out by later experience. He says:—"While, however, there are not apparent signs of mechanical disturbances, during the long period that elapsed from the cooling of the earth's surface to the deposition of the Silurian and Cambrian systems, it is to be presumed that the internal igneous activity of the earth's crust was in full force, so that on the inner side of it, in obedience to the laws of specific gravity, chemical attraction, and centrifugal force, a great segregation of silica in a molten state took place. This molten silica continually accumulating, spreading, and pressing against the horizontal Cambro-Silurian beds during a long period at length forced its way through the superincumbent strata in all directions; and it is abundantly evident, under the conditions of this force and the resistance offered to its action, that the line it would and must choose would be along any continuous and slightly inclined diagonal, at times crossing the strata of the schists, though generally preferring to develop itself and egress between the cleavage planes and dividing seams of the different schistose beds."

Lode gold

He goes on to say, "Another argument to the same end (i.e., the igneous origin) may be shown from the fact that the auriferous quartz lodes have exercised a manifest metamorphic action on the adjacent walls or casing; they have done so partly in a mineralogical sense, but generally there has been a metamorphic alteration of the rock." Mr. Rosales then tells his readers, what we all know must be the case, that the gold would be volatilised by the heat, as would be also the other metals, which he says, were in the form of arseniurets and sulphurets; but he fails to explain how the sublimated metals afterwards reassumed their metallic form. Seeing that, in most cases, they would be hermetically enclosed in molten and quickly solidifying silica they could not be acted on to any great extent by aqueous agency. Neither does Mr. Rosales's theory account at all for auriferous lodes; which below water level are composed of a solid mass of sulphide of iron with traces of other sulphides, gold, calcspar, and a comparatively small percentage of silica. Nor will it satisfactorily explain the auriferous antimonial silica veins of the New England district, New South Wales, in which quantities of angular and unaltered fragments of slate from the enclosing rocks are found imbedded in the quartz.

With respect to the metamorphism of the enclosing rocks to a greater degree of hardness, which Mr. Rosales considered was due to heat, it should be remembered that these rocks in their original state were much softer and more readily fusible than the quartz, consequently all would have been molten and mingled together instead of showing as a rule clearly defined walls. It is much more rational to suppose that the increased hardness imparted to the slates and schists at or near their contact with the lode is due to an infiltration of silica from the silicated solution which at one time filled the fissure. Few scientists can now be found to advance the purely igneous theory of lode formation, though it must be admitted that volcanic action has probably had much influence not only in the formation of mineral veins, but also on the occurrence of the minerals therein. But the action was hydrothermal, just such as was seen in course of operation in New Zealand a few years ago when, in the Rotomahana district, one could actually see the growing of the marvellous White and Pink Terraces formed by the release of silica from the boiling water exuding from the hot springs, which water, so soon as the heat and pressure were removed, began to deposit its silica very rapidly; while at the Thames Gold-field, in the same country hot, silicated water continuously boiled out of the walls of some of the lodes after the quartz had been removed and re-deposited a siliceous sinter thereon.

On this subject I note the recently published opinions of Professor Lobley, a gentleman whose scientific reputation entitles his utterances to respect, but who, when he contends that gold is not found in the products of volcanic action is, I venture to think, arguing from insufficient premises. Certainly his theories do not hold good either in Australasia or America where gold is often, nay, more usually, found at, or near, either present or past regions of volcanic action.

It is always gratifying to have one's theories confirmed by men whose opinions carry weight in the scientific world. About seventeen years ago I first published certain theories on gold deposition, which, even then, were held by many practical men, and some scientists, to be open to question. Of late years, however, the theory of gold occurrence by deposition from mineral salts has been accepted by all but the "mining experts" who infest and afflict the gold mining camps of the world. These opine that gold ought to occur in "pockets" only (meaning thereby their own).

Recently Professor Joseph Le Conte, at a meeting of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, criticised a notable essay on the "Genesis of Ore Deposits," by Bergrath F. Posepny. The Professor's general conclusions are:

  1. "Ore deposits, using the term in its widest sense, may take place from any kinds of waters, but especially from alkaline solutions, for these are the natural solvents of metallic sulphides, and metallic sulphides are usually the original form of such deposits."

  2. "They may take place from waters at any temperature and any pressure, but mainly from those at high temperature and under heavy pressure, because, on account of their great solvent power, such waters are heavily freighted with metals."

  3. "The depositing waters may be moving in any direction, up-coming, horizontally moving, or even sometimes down-going, but mainly up-coming; because by losing heat and pressure at every step such waters are sure to deposit abundantly."

  4. "Deposits may take place in any kind of waterways—in open fissures, in incipient fissures, joints, cracks, and even in porous sandstone, but especially in great open fissures, because these are the main highways of ascending waters from the greatest depths."

  5. "Deposits may be found in many regions and in many kinds of rocks, but mainly in mountain regions, and in metamorphic and igneous rocks, because the thermosphere is nearer the surface, and ready access thereto through great fissures is found mostly in these regions and in these rocks."

These views are in accordance with nearly all modern research into this interesting and fruitful subject.

Among the theories which they discredit is that ore bodies may usually be assumed to become richer in depth. As applied to gold lodes the teaching of experience does not bear out this view.

If it be taken into account that the time in which most of our auriferous siliceous lodes were formed was probably that indicated in Genesis as before the first day or period when "the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep," it will be realised that the action we behold now taking place in a small way in volcanic regions, was probably then almost universal. The crust of the earth had cooled sufficiently to permit water to lie on its surface, probably in hot shallow seas, like the late Lake Rotomahana. Plutonic action would be very general, and volcanic mud, ash, and sand would be ejected and spread far and wide, which, sinking to the bottom of the water, may possibly be the origin of what we now designate the azoic or metamorphic slates and schists, as also the early Cambrian and Silurian strata. These, from the superincumbent weight and internal heat, became compacted, and, in some cases, crystallised, while at the same time, from the ingress of the surface waters to the heated regions below, probably millions of geysers were spouting their mineral impregnated waters in all directions; and in places where the crust was thin, explosions of super-heated steam caused huge upheavals, rifts, and chasms, into which these waters returned, to be again ejected, or to be the cause of further explosions. Later, as the cooling-process continued, there would be shrinkages of the earth's crust causing other fissures; intrusive granites further dislocated and upheaved the slates. About this age, probably, when really dry land began to appear, came the first formation of mineral lodes, and the waters, heavily charged with silicates, carbonates of lime, sulphides, etc., in solution, commenced to deposit their contents in solid form when the heat and pressure were removed.

I am aware that part of the theory here propounded as to the probable mode of formation of the immense sedimentary beds of the Archaic or Azoic period is not altogether orthodox—i.e., that the origin of these beds is largely due to the ejection of mud, sand, and ashes from subterraneous sources, which, settling in shallow seas, were afterwards altered to their present form. It is difficult, however, to believe that at this very early period of geologic history so vast a time had elapsed as would be required to account for these enormous depositions of sediment, if they were the result only of the degradation of previously elevated portions of the earth's surface by water agency. Glacial action at that time would be out of the question.

But what about the metals? Whence came the metallic gold of our reefs and drifts? What was it originally—a metal or a metallic salt, and if the latter, what was its nature?—chloride, sulphide, or silicate, one, or all three? I incline to the latter hypothesis. All three are known, and the chemical conditions of the period were favorable for their natural production. Assuming that they did exist, the task of accounting for the mode of occurrence of our auriferous quartz lodes is comparatively simple. Chloride of gold is at present day contained in sea water and in some mineral waters, and would have been likely to be more abundant during the Azoic and early Paleozoic period.

Sulphide of gold would have been produced by the action of sulphuretted hydrogen; hence probably our auriferous pyrites lodes, while silicate of gold might have resulted from a combination of gold chlorides with silicic acid, and thus the frequent presence of gold in quartz is accounted for.

A highly interesting and instructive experiment, showing how gold might be, and probably was, deposited in quartz veins, was carried out by Professor Bischof some years ago. He, having prepared a solution of chloride of gold, added thereto a solution of silicate of potash, whereupon, as he states, the yellow colour of the chloride disappeared, and in half an hour the fluid turned blue, and a gelatinous dark-blue precipitate appeared and adhered to the sides of the vessel. In a few days moss-like forms were seen on the surface of the precipitate, presumably approximating to what we know as dendroidal gold—that is, having the appearance of moss, fern, or twigs. After allowing the precipitate to remain undisturbed under water for a month or two a decomposition took place, and in the silicate of gold specks of metallic gold appeared. From this, the Professor argues, and with good show of reason, that as we know now that the origin of our quartz lodes was the silicates contained in certain rocks, it is probable that a natural silicate of gold may be combined with these silicates. If this can be demonstrated, the reason for the almost universal occurrence of gold in quartz is made clear.

About 1870, Mr. Skey, analyst to the New Zealand Geological Survey Department, made a number of experiments of importance in respect to the occurrence of gold. These experiments were summarised by Sir James Hector in an address to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1872. Mr. Skey's experiments disproved the view generally held that gold is unaffected by sulphur or sulphuretted hydrogen gas, and showed that these elements combined with avidity, and that the gold thus treated resisted amalgamation with mercury. Mr. Skey proved the act of absorption of sulphur by gold to be a chemical act, and that electricity was generated in sufficient quantity and intensity during the process to decompose metallic solutions. Sulphur in certain forms had long been known to exercise a prejudicial effect upon the amalgamation of gold, but this had always been attributed to the combination of the sulphur with the quicksilver used. Now, however, it is certain that the sulphurising of the gold must be taken into account. We must remember that the particles of gold in the stone may be enveloped with a film of auriferous sulphide, by which they are protected from the solvent actions of the mercury. The sulphurisation of the gold gives no ocular manifestation by change of colour or perceptible increase of weight, as in the case of the formation of sulphides of silver, lead and other metals, on account of the extremely superficial action of the sulphur, and hence probably the existence of the gold sulphide escaped detection by chemists.

Closely allied to this subject is the investigation of the mode in which certain metals are reduced from their solutions by metallic sulphides, or, in common language, the influence which the presence of such substances as mundic and galena may exercise in effecting the deposit of pure metals, such as gold, in mineral lodes. The close relation which the richness of gold veins bears to the prevalence of pyrites has been long familiar both to scientific observers and to practical miners. The gold is an after deposit to the pyrites, and, as Mr. Skey was the first to explain, due to its direct reducing influences. By a series of experiments Mr. Skey proved that the reduction of the metal was due to the direct action of the sulphide, and showed that each grain of iron pyrites, when thoroughly oxidised, will reduce 12 1/4 grains of gold from its solution as chloride. He also included salts of platina and silver in this general law, and demonstrated that solutions of any of these metals traversing a vein rock containing certain sulphides would be decomposed, and the pure metal deposited. We are thus enabled to comprehend the constant association of gold, or native alloys of gold and silver, in veins which traverse rocks containing an abundance of pyrites, whether they have been formed as the result of either sub-aqueous volcanic outburst or by the metamorphism of the deeper-seated strata which compose the superficial crust of the earth.

Mr. Skey also showed by very carefully conducted experiments that the metallic sulphides are not only better conductors of electricity than has hitherto been supposed, but that when paired they were capable of exhibiting strong electro-motive power. Thus, if galena and zinc blende in acid solutions be connected in the usual manner by a voltaic pair, sulphuretted hydrogen is evolved from the surface of the former, and a current generated which is sufficient to reduce gold, silver or copper from their solutions in coherent electro-plate films. The attributing of this property of generating voltaic currents, hitherto supposed to be almost peculiar to metals, to such sulphides as are commonly found in metalliferous veins, further led Mr. Skey to speculate how far the currents discovered to exist in such veins by Mr. E. F. Fox might be produced by the gradual oxidation of mixed sulphides, and that veins containing bands of different metallic sulphides, bounded by continuing walls, and saturated with mineral waters, may constitute under some circumstances a large voltaic battery competent to produce electro-deposition of metals, and that the order of the deposit of these mineral lodes will be found to bear a definite relation to the order in which the sulphides rank in the table of their electro-motive power. These researches may lead to some clearer comprehension of the law which regulates the distribution of auriferous veins, and may explain why in some cases the metal should be nearly pure, while in others it is so largely alloyed with silver.

The following extract was lately clipped from a mining paper. If true, the experiment is interesting:—

"An American scientist has just concluded a very interesting and suggestive experiment. He took a crushed sample of rich ore from Cripple Creek, which carried 1100 ozs. of gold per ton, and digested it in a very weak solution of sodium chloride and sulphate of iron, making the solution correspond as near as practicable to the waters found in Nature. The ore was kept in a place having a temperature little less than boiling water for six weeks, when all the gold, except one ounce per ton, was found to have gone into solution. A few small crystals of pyrite were then placed in the bottle of solution, and the gold began immediately to precipitate on them. It was noticeable, however, that the pyrite crystals which were free from zinc, galena, or other extraneous matter received no gold precipitate. Those which had such foreign associations were beautifully covered with fine gold crystals."

Experimenting in a somewhat similar direction abut twelve months since, I found that the West Australian mine water, with the addition of an acid, was a solvent of gold. The idea of boiling it did not occur to me, as the action was rapid in cold water.

Assuming, then, that gold originally existed as a mineral salt, when and how did it take metallic form? Doubtless, just in the same manner as we now (by means of well-known reagents which are common in nature) precipitate it in the laboratory. With regard to that found in quartz lodes finely disseminated through the gangue, the change was brought about by the same agency which caused the silicic acid to solidify and take the form in which we now see it in the quartz veins. Silica is soluble in solutions of alkaline carbonates, as shown in New Zealand geysers; the solvent action being increased by heat and pressure, so also would be the silicate or sulphide of gold. When, however, the waters with their contents were released from internal pressure and began to lose their heat the gold would be precipitated together with the salts of some other metals, and would, where the waters could percolate, begin to accretionise, thus forming the heavy or specimen gold of some reefs. On this class of deposition I shall have more to say when treating of the origin of alluvial gold in the form of nuggets.

Mr. G. F. Becker, of the United States Geological Survey, writing of the geology of the Comstock lode, says:—"Baron Von Richthofen was of opinion that fluorine and chlorine had played a large part of the ore deposition in the Comstock, and this the writer is not disposed to deny; but, on the other hand, it is plain that most of the phenomena are sufficiently accounted for on the supposition that the agents have been merely solutions of carbonic and hydro-sulphuric acids. These reagents will attack the bisilicates and felspars. The result would be carbonates and sulphides of metals, earth, alkalies, and free quartz, but quartz and sulphides of the metals are soluble in solutions of carbonates and sulphides of the earths and alkalies, and the essential constituents of the ore might, therefore, readily be conveyed to openings in the vein where they would have been deposited on relief of pressure and diminution of temperature. An advance boring on the 3000 ft. level of the Yellow Jacket struck a powerful stream of water at 3065 ft. (in the west country), which was heavily charged with hydrogen sulphide, and had a temperature of 170 degrees F., and there is equal evidence of the presence of carbonic acid in the water of the lower levels. A spring on the 2700 ft. level of the Yellow Jacket which showed a temperature of about 150 degrees F., was found to be depositing a sinter largely composed of carbonates."

It may be worth while here to speak of the probable reason why gold, and indeed almost all the metals generally occur in shutes in the lodes; and why, as is often the case, these shutes are found to be more or less in a line with each other in parallel lodes, and why also the junction of two lodes is frequently specially productive. The theory with respect to these phenomena which appears most feasible is, that at these points certain chemical action has taken place, by which the deposition of the metals has been specially induced. Generally a careful examination of the enclosing rocks where the shute is found will reveal some points of difference from the enclosing rocks at other parts of the course of the lode, and when ore shutes are found parallel in reefs running on the same course, bands or belts of similar country rock will be found at the productive points. From this we may fairly reason that at these points the slow stream filling the lode cavity met with a reagent percolating from this particular band of rock, which caused the deposition of its metals; and, indeed, I am strongly disposed to believe that the deposition of metals, particularly in some loose lodes, may even now be proceeding. But as in Nature's laboratory the processes, if certain, are slow, this theory may be difficult to prove.

Why the junction of lodes is often found to be more richly metalliferous than neighbouring parts is probably because there the depositing reagents met. This theory is well put by Mr. S. Herbert Cox, late of Sydney, in his useful book, "Mines and Minerals." He says:—"It is a well-known fact in all mining districts that the junctions of lodes are generally the richest points, always supposing that this junction takes place in 'kindly country,' and the explanation of this we think is simple on the aqueous theory of filling of lodes. The water which is traversing two different channels of necessity passes through different belts of country, and will thus have different minerals in solution. As a case in point, let us suppose that the water in one lode contained in solution carbonates of lime, and the alkalies and silica derived form a decomposition of felspars; and that the other, charged with hydro-sulphuric acid, brought with it sulphide of gold dissolved in sulphide of lime. The result of these two waters meeting would be that carbonate of lime would be formed, hydro-sulphuric acid would be set free, and sulphide of gold would be deposited, as well as silica, which was formerly held in solution by the carbonic acid."

Most practical men who have given the subject attention will, I think, be disposed to coincide with this view, though there are some who hold that the occurrence of these parallel ore shutes and rich deposits at the junctions of lodes is due to extraneous electrical agency. Of this, however I have failed to find any satisfactory evidence.

There is, however, proof that lodes are actually re-forming and the action observed is very interesting as showing how the stratification in some lodes has come about. Instances are not wanting of the growth of silica on the sides of the drives in mines. This was so in some of the mines on the Thames, New Zealand, previously mentioned, where in some cases the deposition was so rapid as to be noticeable from day to day, whilst the big pump was actually choked by siliceous deposits. In old auriferous workings which have been under water for years, in many parts of the world, formations of iron and silica have been found on the walls and roof, while in mining tunnels which have been long unused stalactites composed of silica and calcite have formed. Then, again, experiments made by the late Professor Cosmo Newbery, in Victoria, showed that a distinctly appreciable amount of gold, iron, and silica (the latter in granular form) could be extracted from solid mine timber; which had been submerged for a considerable time.

This reaction then must be in progress at the present time, and doubtless under certain conditions pyrites would eventually take the place of the timber, as is the case with some of the long buried driftwood found in Victorian deep leads. Again, we know that the water from some copper mines is so charged with copper sulphate that if scrap iron be thrown into it, the iron will be taken up by the sulphuric acid, and metallic copper deposited in its place. All this tends to prove that the deposition of metals from their salts, though probably not now as rapid as formerly, is still ceaselessly going on in some place or another where the necessary conditions are favourable.

With regard to auriferous pyritic lodes, it does not appear even now to be clear, as some scientists assert, that their gold is never found in chemical combination with the sulphides of the base metals. On the contrary, I think much of the evidence points in the other direction.

I have long been of opinion that it is really so held in many of the ferro-sulphides and arsenio-ferro sulphides. On this subject Mr. T. Atherton contributed a short article in 1891 to the Australian Mining Standard which is worthy of notice. He says, referring to an occurrence of a Natural Sulphide of Gold: "The existence of gold, in the form of a natural sulphide in conjunction with pyrites, has often been advanced theoretically, as a possible occurrence; but up to the present time has, I believe, never been established as an actual fact. During my investigation on the ore of the Deep Creek mines, Nambucca, New South Wales, I have found in them what I believe to be gold existing as a natural sulphide. The lode is a large irregular one of pure arsenical pyrites carrying, in addition to gold and silver, nickel and cobalt. It exists in a felsite dyke immediately on the coast. Surrounding it on all sides are micaceous schists, and in the neighbourhood about half a mile distant is a large granite hill about 800 feet high. In the lode and its walls are large quantities of pyro-phyllite, and in some parts of the mine there are deposits of pure white translucent mica, but in the ore itself it is a yellow or pale olive green, and is never absent from the pyrites.

"From the first I was much struck with the exceedingly fine state of division in which the gold existed in the ore. After roasting and very carefully grinding down in an agate mortar, I have never been able to get any pieces of gold exceeding one-thousandth of an inch in diameter, and the greater quantity is very much finer than this. Careful dissolving of the pyrites and gangue so as to leave the gold intact failed to find it in any larger diameter. As this was a very unusual experience in investigations on many other kinds of pyrites, I was led further into the matter.

"Ultimately, after a number of experiments, there was nothing left but to test for gold existing as a natural sulphide. Taking 200 gr. of ore from a sample assaying 17 oz. fine gold per ton, grinding it finely and heating for some hours with yellow sodium sulphide—on decomposing the filtrate and treating for gold I got a result at the rate of 12 oz. per ton. This was repeated several times with the same result.

"This sample came from the lode at the 140 ft. level, whilst samples from the higher levels where the ore is more oxidised, although carrying the gold in exactly the same degree of fineness, do not give as high a percentage of auric sulphide.

"It would appear that all the gold in the pyrites (and I have never found any gold existing apart from the pyrites) has originally taken its place there as a sulphide."

Professor Newbery, who made many valuable suggestions on the subject, says, speaking of gold in pyritous lodes:

"As it (the gold salt) may have been in the same solution that deposited the pyrites, which probably contained its iron in the form of proto-carbonate with sulphates, it was not easy at first to imagine any ordinary salt of gold; but this I find can be accomplished with very dilute solutions in the presence of an alkaline carbonate and a large excess of carbonic acid, both of which are common constituents of mineral waters, especially in Victoria. This is true of chloride of gold, and if the sulphide is required in solution, it is only necessary to charge the solution with an excess of sulphuretted hydrogen. In this matter both sulphides may be retained in the same solution, depositing gradually with the escape of the carbonic acid."

Pyritic lodes usually contain a considerable proportion of calcareous matter, mostly carbonates, and consequently it appears not improbable that the gold may remain in some instances as a sulphide, particularly in samples of pyrites, in which it cannot be detected even by the microscope until by calcination the iron sulphide is changed to an oxide, wherein the gold may be seen in minute metallic specks. The whole subject is full of interest, and careful scientific investigation may lead to astonishing results.

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