What Is a Rock, Exactly?

Geology 101: Identifying Rocks

Sedimentary rock
Sedimentary rocks are usually composed of layers of mineral grains. Andrew Alden photo

What is a rock, exactly? After some thought and discussion, most people will agree that rocks are more or less hard solids, of natural origin and made of minerals. But to geologists, all of those criteria have exceptions.

What is a Rock? Is It Hard?

Not necessarily. Some common rocks can be scratched with your fingernails such as shale, soapstone, gypsum rock, and peat. Others may be soft in the ground, but they harden once they spend time in the air (and vice versa).

And there is an imperceptible gradation between consolidated rocks and unconsolidated sediments. Indeed, geologists name and map many formations that don't consist of rock at all. This is why geologists refer to work with igneous and metamorphic rocks as "hard-rock geology," opposed to "sedimentary petrology."

What is a Rock? Is It Solid?

Some rocks are far from completely solid. Many rocks include water in their pore spaces. Many geodes -- hollow objects found in limestone country -- hold water inside them like coconuts. Two rocks that are barely solids include fine lava threads known as Pele's hair and the fine open meshwork of exploded lava reticulite.

Then there's the matter of temperature. Mercury is a liquid metal at room temperature (and down to -40 F), and petroleum is a fluid unless it's asphalt erupted into cold ocean water. And good old ice meets all the criteria of rockhood too...in permafrost and in glaciers.

What is a Rock? Are They Natural?

Not entirely. The longer humans stay on this planet, the more that concrete accumulates. Concrete is a mixture of sand and pebbles (aggregate) and a mineral glue (cement) of calcium silicate compounds. It is a synthetic conglomerate and it acts just like the natural rock, turning up in riverbeds and on beaches.

Some of it has entered the rock cycle to be discovered by future geologists.

Brick, too, is an artificial rock -- in this case, an artificial form of massive slate. (See the Artificial Rocks Gallery for more examples.)

Another human product that closely resembles rock is slag, the byproduct of metal smelting. Slag is a complex mixture of oxides that has many uses including road-building and concrete aggregate. It has found its way into sedimentary rocks already.

What is a Rock? Is It Made of Minerals?

Many are not. Minerals are inorganic compounds with chemical formulas and mineral names such as quartz or pyrite (see "What Is a Mineral?"). Coal is made of organic material, not minerals. The various types of stuff in coal are instead called macerals. Similarly, what about coquina...a rock made entirely of seashells? Shells are made of mineral matter, but they aren't minerals any more than teeth are.

Finally, we have the exception of obsidian. Obsidian is a rock glass, in which little or none of its material has gathered into crystals. It is an undifferentiated mass of geological material, rather like slag but not as colorful. While obsidian has no minerals in it per se, it is unquestionably a rock.