March 22, 2007

Stone and Goop

Posted by: David Williams

Last week I traveled to Los Angeles. I didn’t go to see famous people, sit in a traffic jam, or hang out at the beach. Instead, being the geek that I am, I went to look at some rocks.

In particular, I traveled south to see the travertine at the Getty Center. On the first day of my visit to the billion dollar complex, I didn’t even make it into any of the museum buildings, except for the entry space, which I only entered because the stone inside looked different than the stone outside.

The travertine is stunning, the color of lightly toasted sourdough and rich in fossils and textures. The 160,000 to 40,000-year old rock, a type of limestone, was formed in lakes generated by hot springs about 20 miles northeast of Rome. It is the same stone that surrounded gladiators in the Colosseum and Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in the infamous Trevi Fountain scene of La Dolce Vita. Closer to home, Garfield High School graduate Minoru Yamasaki used travertine for his Rainier Tower and IBM building in downtown Seattle.

What makes the Getty’s travertine so stunning is that it was cut to reveal the complex bedding surfaces. My favorite is the honeycomb pattern formed from lithified gas bubbles. In addition, I like the shrub-like structures created by bacteria induced precipitation of calcite. Bacteria also produced flat mats of calcite. And in one spot, I found where a hot fumerole of water pushed through the travertine beds and left behind a vent of reprecipitated calcite. Many panels also contain leaf fossils. Two or three have fossilized feathers and one massive panel looks like a frozen swamp with reeds and mosses. With rock like this why would anyone, geek or otherwise, go into the gallery spaces?

On my little adventure, I also visited a pool of goop. Black, sticky and redolent of gasoline, such pools are famous for trapping and killing one of the few animals that can compete with dinosaurs for people’s interest: the saber-toothed cat. The remains of over 2,000 cats have been excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits, which includes the one on permanent display in the Cold Times gallery at the Burke.

So next time you go down to LA, I highly recommend blowing off the stars and studios. Instead, go to a museum and check out the stone and the goop. If you can’t make it down to LA, no worries; Seattle has great building geology, that infamous saber-toothed cat, and some pretty good traffic, too.

- David