Saturday, 7 May 2016


9 famous rocks from around the world
By Matt Hickman,
Mother Nature Network, 5 May 2016.

Here at MNN, we have a thing for strange, beautiful, photogenic and one-of-a-kind rock formations. Each astounding in their own right, these Mother Nature-crafted wonders, many of them showcased within national or state parks, never fail to thrill and prompt the question: "How in the world did that happen?"

And then there are a few rocks that belong in an entirely different league - singular stones and slabs that transcend cool-to-look-at status and boast notable cultural or historic significance. Massive, medium-sized and occasionally puny, these are rocks that are worshiped, revered and that have changed the course of history; rocks that have been kissed, kidnapped and landed upon; rocks equipped with their own myths and mysteries; rocks with above-average Yelp ratings and notable Hollywood pedigrees; rocks that need little to no explanation.

These, folks, are the rock stars of the geologic world.

With an eye toward historic importance and pop culture prowess, we've rounded up nine of the world's most iconic rocks, stones and monoliths from across the world. Now let's get rockin' shall we?

1. Uluru

Photo: shinazy shinazy/Flickr

One of Australia's most celebrated natural landmarks is a gargantuan sandstone monolith - an inselberg or "island mountain," technically - that rises nearly 3,000 feet from the vast desert plains like a pimple in the middle of the Australian outback.

Dermatological comparisons aside, Ayers Rock or Uluru - dually named in 1985 to honor of mid-19th century South Australian legislator Sir Henry Ayers while also rightfully preserving its official Aboriginal name - is often heralded as Australia's spiritual heart. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Aussie's top rock is a powerful and mysterious place, considered by many to be sacred. And like other sacred places that, for better or worse, double as tourist magnets, Uluru isn't devoid of culturally insensitive activities including one that thousands of thrill-seeking visitors partake in despite pleas not to. The climbing - or, preferably, not climbing - of Uluru is a complex and contentious issue. Seemingly everyone does it - for many, mounting the 700 million-year-old monolith is the reason to visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park - yet the Anangu people have made it clear that they prefer visitors to stay off the designated climbing path for a variety of reasons, both spiritual and practical.

Mostly, the Anangu, as custodians of the land, don't want visitors to get injured or die while making the strenuous trek to the top. "We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land. We worry about you and we worry about your family," the please-don't-climb signs at Uluru read. Although Australian law doesn't prohibit visitors from climbing, respect for indigenous beliefs is what halts many would-be-climbers in their tracks. The debate rages on with pro-climbing proponents like Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles arguing that banning people from scrambling up the side of Uhuru would harm the local economy.

2. Blarney Stone

Photo: David Kinney/Flickr

Arguably the most smooched-upon slab of Carboniferous-period limestone on the planet, Blarney Castle's titular stone has known more puckered lips than the legendary Don Juan himself.

As those who have made the pilgrimage to County Cork, Ireland's most unhygienic tourist attraction could tell you, laying a wet one on the Blarney Stone isn't exactly the most casual act of ritualistic kissing. In fact, it's rather involved. You see, the Blarney Stone is set into the machicolations of the medieval castle and to do the deed - a deed believed to bestow the kiss-giver with the gift of eloquence - you must ascend to the tippy-top of the castle, traverse a precarious parapet walkway and then lie on your back in a designated spot. From there, lip-on-stone contact can only be made by leaning backwards over a sheer drop while hanging on for dear life to a pair of wrought iron safety bars. It's almost as complicated as snatching a pot of gold from a leprechaun, but not quite.

As for the Blarney Stone's germ-ridden reputation, castle owner Sir Charles Colthurst dismisses it as being hogwash. He told the Irish Times in 2010: "To my knowledge no one has ever caught anything from kissing the stone. I had an esteemed expert clarify that you cannot catch any disease from kissing the stone." Great to know! However, it's still advisable to bring a packet of sanitizing wipes along with those sensible walking shoes.

3. Haystack Rock

Photo: cjuneau/Flickr

Not really hidden-away-at-all on the rugged, beyond-picturesque Oregon coast, you'll find America's most photogenic collection of sea stacks - that is, hulking, geological masses formed by lava and shaped over millennia by wind and wave erosion.

A tourist-luring icon landmark of the city of Cannon Beach, the tallest of these stacks (collectively, they're known as "the Needles") at 235 feet is the majestic, monolithic Haystack Rock. Not to be confused with Oregon's other Haystack Rock located 60 miles down the coast in Pacific City, Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock is best known for its Hollywood cameos ("The Goonies," "1941" and "Kindergarten Cop" just to name a few) and for its public accessibility. During low tide, visitors can reach the monolith by foot and explore its tide pools, which are teeming with intertidal critters like starfish, crabs and a kaleidoscopic variety of sea slugs and anemones. A variety of nesting seabirds, including the tufted puffin, also call Haystack Rock home on a seasonal basis.

This all said, with such easy accessibility comes responsibility. As a state-protected marine garden and a national wildlife refuge, Haystack Rock is very much a "look but don't touch" type of place with established protocol that prohibits poking, prodding and prying. Climbing the rock itself is also forbidden and so is leaving with a bucket filled with "souvenirs."

4. Plymouth Rock

Photo: jjron/Wikimedia Commons

One might assume that the most oft-invoked rock in American history is monumental, and impossible to miss - a promontory or beaconing monolith that stands as a sort of Cape Cod cousin to Oregon's Haystack Rock.

However, "monumental" and "impossible to miss" cannot be used to describe Plymouth Rock, a granodiorite boulder believed to be where the green-faced passengers of the Mayflower first stepped foot upon not-yet-American soil in 1620. Now housed within a gated enclosure at Massachusetts's smallest state park, it's hard to believe that anything could land upon this physically underwhelming historic artifact let alone a merchant vessel filled with 120 English Separatists. To be fair, Plymouth Rock, which wasn't even mentioned as the pilgrim's disembarkation point until well over 100 years after their arrival, was, once upon a time, more impressive in size. In 1774, the original rock was split in half during a relocation effort. Whoops.

From then on, the rock - or at least the top half of it - gradually diminished in size as it was shuffled around town to various venues with souvenir hunters chiseling away not-so-small chunks at every opportunity. In 1880, the two long-separated halves of Plymouth Rock were at long last reunited and bound together by cement. It was then that the date "1620" was carved into the time-battered boulder. In 1921, Plymouth Rock, kind-of-but-not-really whole at an estimated one-third or one-half its original size, was relocated to its current, portico-protected home at Plymouth Harbor where it has been garnering the reaction of "Wait…that's it?" ever since.

5. Rock of Gibraltar

Photo: Ayala/Wikimedia Commons

As the old saying goes, the defining geological feature of the diminutive sovereign British territory of the same name, the Rock of Gibraltar - or simply, the Rock - is indeed solid. And dramatic, breathtaking, history-shaping and overrun with mischievous monkeys.

About those monkeys. Located in the southernmost reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar's unique, continent-straddling locale - only a narrow strait separates the peninsular territory from Morocco - means that it's home to some unique fauna including, most famously, a colony of 150 or so Barbary macaques. The colony of so-called rock apes, which can mostly be found on the nature reserve-designated upper reaches of the rock itself, is the only population of wild primates on the European continent. Descended from North African Barbary macaques, Gibraltar's Barbary macaques have taken up residence on the rock - the rock, by the way, is a monolithic limestone promontory with an elevation of 1,398 feet - since, well, pretty much forever…at least long before Gibraltar first came under British control in 1704. Legend has it that if the macaques ever decamp from the rock, than Gibraltar will cease to be British.

This being said, the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society takes great care to ensure that the microchip-embedded monkeys are healthy, happy and well fed. Tourists also supply the pilferage-prone macaques with a steady supply of treats, sometimes inadvertently since the emboldened monkeys are noted for periodically snatching purses and backpacks in search of a quick nibble. The practice of purposely feeding the cheeky little buggers, however, is punishable by law. In recent years, repeat troublemakers have been banished from Gibraltar - the monkeys, not tourists, that is.

6. Rosetta Stone

Photo: DAVID HOLT/Flickr

Three scripts, two languages, one mystery-unlocking black granodiorite slab. Now largely referred to idiomatically or in reference to a brand of interactive language learning software, it's often easy to forget that a real Rosetta Stone very much exists.

That is, of course, unless you've battled the crowds at the British Museum where the prized artifact, a rock stele of ancient Egyptian extraction, has remained a top draw since it was first removed from French possession (it was unearthed by Napoleon's troops near the city of Rosetta in 1799) under the Treaty of Alexandria and transferred there in 1802. Those familiar with the Rosetta Stone are well aware that its earth-shattering importance doesn't stem from the content of the text inscribed on it. Rather, it's how the text, a King Ptolemy V-praising decree issued by a council of high priests in 196 B.C., is inscribed that changed history forever. Given that the stone is inscribed with three parallel texts, Greek (governmental), Egyptian Demotic (common) and Egyptian hieroglyphics (sacred), linguists and scholars with a firm knowledge of ancient Greek were at long last able to crack the proverbial code and gain a greater understanding of the eternally baffling Egyptian picture writing system known as hieroglyphics.

While the Rosetta Stone was discovered - and ultimately deciphered - by the French and has been housed in London for the past two centuries, some would argue that this celebrated granite slab qualifies as stolen goods and belongs back in the country where it was plundered from hundreds of years ago. Said Zahi Hawass, a controversial Egyptian archaeologist leading the charge to have the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian antiquities held by museums across the world transferred to the Cairo Museum: "If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity."

7. Stonehenge

Photo: Nelo Hotsuma/Flickr

Sure, England's most enigmatic prehistoric monument isn't a singular stone, boulder or oversized rock formation like the rest of the entrants on this list. But c'mon, how can you omit Stonehenge from a celebration of world-famous rocks?

True, the exact origin and purpose of Stonehenge remain one of life's great mysteries. (Astronomical observatory? Burial site? Neolithic health spa? Alien spacecraft landing pad?) But over the years, determined geologists have been able to pinpoint the source of the stones themselves. However, how these stones wound up at the monument site on the Salisbury Plain is a whole other story. In 2011, following extensive petrographic analysis that took into consideration both the mineral content and the textural relationship between rocks, British geologists concluded that the hefty dolerites, or bluestones, that compose Stonehenge's inner circle were transported, for reasons and by methods unknown, 160 miles away from Craig Rhos-y-felin, a megalith quarry in Pembrokeshire, Wales. "Being able to provenance any archaeologically significant rock so precisely is remarkable," Rob Ixer of Leicester University explained to the BBC upon the surprising revelation. "However, given continued perseverance, we are determined that we shall uncover the origins of most, if not all of the Stonehenge bluestones so allowing archaeologists to continue their speculations well into a third century."

As for the hulking pillars that form the iconic outer ring and inner horseshoe formation at Stonehenge, these are known as sarsens, a type of sandstone block weighing as much as 50 metric tons. The sarsens are widely believed to have made a far less arduous journey than the bluestones, having been hauled by the site's mysterious builders from Marlborough Downs, just 20 miles north of the roughly 5,000-year-old site.

8. Stone Mountain

Photo: Katie/Flickr

Located just a quick drive outside of Atlanta's city limits, Stone Mountain is a curious quartz monzonite formation that sticks out like the South's most prominent sore thumb.

Billed as the world's largest exposed granite monolith - like Australia's Ulruru, the colossal rock is technically a monadnock or inselberg - Stone Mountain is renowned for both its unique geology and the fact that the world's largest bas-relief sculpture can be found on its north face. Dubbed the Confederate Memorial Carving, this 3-acre, decades-in-the-making relief was started but subsequently abandoned by Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame and depicts the horse-bound figures of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Given the massive relief is a tribute to the Confederacy and the fact that Stone Mountain itself possesses strongly disagreeable chapters in its own more modern history, this broadcast tower-topped monolith has served as a controversy magnet when not serving as a family-friendly tourist destination. Today, the 825-foot-tall rock is the centerpiece of a 3,200-acre state-owned park boasting miles of nature trails, a dizzying cable car ride, living history museum and more.

In October 2015, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association proposed crowning Stone Mountain with a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-honoring replica of the Liberty Bell dubbed the "Freedom Bell." King invoked Stone Mountain in his landmark 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, and the mention was a pointed one as the monolith, although recently acquired by the state, was still largely associated with its previous, Klu Klux Klan-supporting owners. Supported by Gov. Nathan Deal, the proposal has been met with strong opposition from Confederate heritage-minded preservationists as well as from civil rights groups that would rather just see the likenesses of Davis, Jackson and Lee sandblasted off the face of Stone Mountain once and for all.

9. Stone of Scone

Photo: sobolevnrm/Flickr

You may have had the misfortune of biting into a scone that’s, well, hard as stone. But mention the words "stone” and "scone" in Scotland and you'll invoke much more than a tooth-chipping biscuit.

A not-so-ordinary rectangular slab of red sandstone weighing 336 pounds, the Stone of Scone - aka the Stone of Destiny - has been subject to mystery, intrigue and a nation-outraging 1950 heist. Although the origins of the Stone of Scone are shrouded in mystery, it's known that the stone played an integral role in the coronation of Scottish monarchs beginning in the 9th century. In 1296, King Edward I of England forcibly possessed the much-revered relic as a spoil of war from Scone Abbey in present-day Perthshire - or was it a cleverly devised replica created in advance of his invasion? Relocated to Westminster Abbey, King Edward outfitted the coronation stone - or the coronation clone? - in his namesake wooden throne used exclusively for coronation ceremonies, most recently in that of Queen Elizabeth II.

The Stone of Scone remained at Westminster Abbey until Christmas 1950 when a quartet of Scottish students made off with the relic during the middle of the night. While liberating the coveted hunk o' sandstone from King Edward's Chair, the nationalistic bandits dropped the stone, breaking it into two chunks. When daylight broke and authorities realized the Stone of Scone had been pilfered during a daring heist, the borders between Scotland and England were closed for the first time in over 400 years. The broken stone was eventually ditched and buried in a field in rural England by the students only to be unearthed, mended back together and returned to Westminster Abbey several months later. (Or was it another duplicate?). In 1996, the British government returned the Stone of Scone, or whatever it is, to Scotland - for keeps. Well, kind of. The stone remains on display at Edinburgh Castle but will return to London when new monarchs are crowned.

Top image: Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon, USA. Credit: John Fowler/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Mother Nature Network. Edited. Some images and links added.]

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