Description of Lithostratigraphy

In lithostratigraphy rock units are considered in terms of the lithological characteristics of the strata and their relative stratigraphic positions. The relative stratigraphic positions of rock units can be determined by considering geometric and physical relationships that indicate which beds are older and which ones are younger. The units can be classified into a hierarchical system of members, formations and groups that provide a basis for categorising and describing rocks in lithostratigraphic terms.

Stratigraphic relationships


Provided the rocks are the right way up the beds higher in the stratigraphic sequence of deposits will be younger than the lower beds. This rule can be simply applied to a layer-cake stratigraphy but must be applied with care in circumstances where there is a significant depositional topography (e.g. fore-reef deposits may be lower than reef-crest rocks).


An unconformity is a break in sedimentation and where there is erosion of the underlying strata this provides a clear relationship in which the beds below the unconformity are clearly older than those above it. All rocks which lie above the unconformity, or a surface that can be correlated with it, must be younger than those below. In cases where strata have been deformed and partly eroded prior to deposition of the younger beds, an angular unconformity is formed. A disconformity marks a break in sedimentation and some erosion, but without any deformation of the underlying strata.

Cross-cutting relationships

Any unit that has boundaries that cut across other strata must be younger than the rocks it cuts. This is most commonly seen with intrusive bodies such as batholiths on a larger scale and dykes on a smaller scale. This relationship is also seen in fissure fills, sedimentary dykes that form by younger sediments filling a crack or chasm in older rocks.

Included fragments

The fragments in a clastic rock must be made up of a rock that is older than the strata in which they are found. The same relationship holds true for igneous rocks that contain pieces of the surrounding country rock as xenoliths (literally 'foreign rocks'). This relationship can be useful in determining the age relationship between rock units that are some distance apart. Pebbles of a characteristic lithology can provide conclusive evidence that the source rock type was being eroded by the time a later unit was being deposited tens or hundreds of kilometres away.

Way-up indicators in sedimentary rocks

The folding and faulting of strata during mountain building can rotate whole successions of beds (formed as horizontal or nearly horizontal layers) through any angle, resulting in beds that may be vertical or completely overturned. In any analysis of deformed strata, it is essential to know the direction of younging, that is, the direction through the layers towards younger rocks. The direction of younging can be determined by small-scale features that indicate the way-up of the beds or by using other stratigraphic techniques to determine the order of formation.

Lithostratigraphic units

There is a hierarchical framework of terms used for lithostratigraphic units, and from largest to smallest these are: 'Supergroup', 'Group', 'Formation', 'Member' and 'Bed'. The basic unit of lithostratigraphic division of rocks is the formation, which is a body of material that can be identified by its lithological characteristics and by its stratigraphic position. It must be traceable laterally, that is, it must be mappable at the surface or in the subsurface. A formation should have some degree of lithological homogeneity and its defining characteristics may include mineralogical composition, texture, primary sedimentary structures and fossil content in addition to the lithological composition. Note that the material does not necessarily have to be lithified and that all the discussion of terminology and stratigraphic relationships applies equally to unconsolidated sediment. A formation is not defined in terms of its age either by isotopic dating or in terms of biostratigraphy. Information about the fossil content of a mapping unit is useful in the description of a formation but the detailed taxonomy of the fossils that may define the relative age in biostratigraphic terms does not form part of the definition of a lithostratigraphic unit. A formation may be, and often is, a diachronous unit, that is, a deposit with the same lithological properties that was formed at different times in different places. A formation may be divided into smaller units in order to provide more detail of the distribution of lithologies. The term member is used for rock units that have limited lateral extent and are consistently related to a particular formation (or, rarely, more than one formation). An example would be a formation composed mainly of sandstone but which included beds of conglomerate in some parts of the area of outcrop. A number of members may be defined within a formation (or none at all) and the formation does not have to be completely subdivided in this way: some parts of a formation may not have a member status. Individual beds or sets of beds may be named if they are very distinctive by virtue of their lithology or fossil content. These beds may have economic significance or be useful in correlation because of their easily recognisable characteristics across an area. Where two or more formations are found associated with each other and share certain characteristics they are considered to form a group. Groups are commonly bound by unconformities which can be traced basin-wide. Unconformities that can be identified as major divisions in the stratigraphy over the area of a continent are sometimes considered to be the bounding surfaces of associations of two or more groups known as a supergroup.

Description of lithostratigraphic units

The formation is the fundamental lithostratigraphic unit and it is usual to follow a certain procedure in geological literature when describing a formation to ensure that most of the following issues are considered. Members and groups are usually described in a similar way.

Lithology and characteristics

The field characteristics of the rock, for example, an oolitic grainstone, interbedded coarse siltstone and claystone, a basaltic lithic tuff, and so on form the first part of the description. Although a formation will normally consist mainly of one lithology, combinations of two or more lithologies will often constitute a formation as interbedded or interfingering units. Sedimentary structures (ripple cross-laminations, normal grading, etc.), petrography (often determined from thin-section analysis) and fossil content (both body and trace fossils) should also be noted.

Definition of top and base

These are the criteria that are used to distinguish beds of this unit from those of underlying and overlying units; this is most commonly a change in lithology from, say, calcareous mudstone to coral boundstone. Where the boundary is not a sharp change from one formation to another, but is gradational, an arbitrary boundary must be placed within the transition. As an example, if the lower formation consists of mainly mudstone with thin sandstone beds, and the upper is mainly sandstone with subordinate mudstone, the boundary may be placed at the point where sandstone first makes up more than 50% of beds. A common convention is for only the base of a unit to be defined at the type section: the top is taken as the defined position of the base of the overlying unit. This convention is used because at another location there may be beds at the top of the lower unit that are not present at the type locality: these can be simply added to the top without a need for redefining the formation boundaries.

Type section

A type section is the location where the lithological characteristics are clear and, if possible, where the lower and upper boundaries of the formation can be seen. Sometimes it is necessary for a type section to be composite within a type area, with different sections described from different parts of the area. The type section will normally be presented as a graphic sedimentary log and this will form the strato type. It must be precisely located (grid reference and/or GPS location) to make it possible for any other geologist to visit the type section and see the boundaries and the lithological characteristics described.

Thickness and extent

The thickness is measured in the type section, but variations in the thickness seen at other localities are also noted. The limits of the geographical area over which the unit is recognised should also be determined. There are no formal upper or lower limits to thickness and extent of rock units defined as a formation (or a member or group). The variability of rock types within an area will be the main constraint on the number and thickness of lithostratigraphic units that can be described and defined. Quality and quantity of exposure also play a role, as finer subdivision is possible in areas of good exposure.

Other information
Where the age for the formation can be determined by fossil content, radiometric dating or relationships with other rock units this may be included, but note that this does not form part of the definition of the formation. A formation would not be defined as, for example, 'rocks of Burdigalian age', because an interpretation of the fossil content or isotopic dating information is required to determine the age. Information about the facies and interpretation of the environment of deposition might be included but a formation should not be defined in terms of depositional environment, for example, 'lagoonal deposits', as this is an interpretation of the lithological characteristics. It is also useful to comment on the terminology and definitions used by previous workers and how they differ from the usage proposed.

Lithostratigraphic nomenclature

It helps to avoid confusion if the definition and naming of stratigraphic units follows a set of rules. Formal codes have been set out in publications such as the 'North American Stratigraphic Code' (North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature 1983) and the 'International Stratigraphic Guide'. A useful summary of stratigraphic methods, which is rather more user-friendly than the formal documents, is a handbook called 'Stratigraphical Procedure'. The name of the formation, group or member must be taken from a distinct and permanent geographical feature as close as possible to the type section. The lithology is often added to give a complete name such as the Kingston Limestone Formation, but it is not essential, or necessarily desirable if the lithological characteristics are varied. The choice of geographical name should be a feature or place marked on topographic maps such as a river, hill, town or village. The rules for naming members, groups and super groups are essentially the same as for formations, but note that it is not permissible to use a name that is already in use or to use the same name for two different ranks of lithostratigraphic unit. There are some exceptions to these rules of nomenclature that result from historical precedents, and it is less confusing to leave a well established name as it is rather than to dogmatically revise it. Revisions to stratigraphic nomenclature may become necessary when more detailed work is carried out or more information becomes available. New work in an area may allow a formation to be subdivided and the formation may then be elevated to the rank of group and members may become formations in their own right. For the sake of consistency the geographical name is retained when the rank of the unit is changed.

Lithodemic units: non-stratiform rock units

The concepts of division into stratigraphic units were developed for rock bodies that are stratiform, layered units, but many metamorphic, igneous plutonic and structurally deformed rocks are not stratiform and they do not follow the rules of superposition. Nonstratiform bodies of rock are called lithodemic units. The basic unit is the lithodeme and this is equivalent in rank to a formation and is also defined on lithological criteria. The word 'lithodeme' is itself rarely used in the name: the body of rock is normally referred to by its geographical name and lithology, such as the White River Granite or Black Hill Schist. An association of lithodemes that share lithological properties, such as a similar metamorphic grade, is referred to as a suite: the term complex is also used as the equivalent to a group for volcanic or tectonically deformed rocks.
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