Sedimentary Rock Banded Iron Formation

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Leslie Hale, B.S.

Leslie Hale at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (California, USA) during a conference of museum collections managers

Photo by Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Mineral Sciences

Leslie Hale, the Smithsonian’s rock and ore collections manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, tells people that she is a “rock librarian.” While growing up in Bowie, Md., not far from the Smithsonian, Hale collected rocks and took a summer class on lapidary art (making jewelry out of stone). Her career choice was greatly influenced by her attendance at a magnet high school for science and mathematics and taking geology as a senior-year elective. Hale joined the Smithsonian staff shortly after finishing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland in 1989. Today, she supervises two full-time staff members as well as several volunteers, interns, and contractors. She assists Smithsonian scientists and visiting researchers who want to use the museum’s extensive collection of rock and ore specimens. Hale also sends out rocks on loan to geologists at distant universities; she keeps track of the objects’ whereabouts and sends out requests for return or loan renewal. Finally, she gives tours of the Smithsonian’s geology research facilities, conducts inventories, answers questions from the public, and identifies rock specimens.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Sedimentary rock formation, southwestern Utah, USA
Courtesy of Mark A. Wilson, The College of Wooster

How Sedimentary Rocks Are Formed

At or near Earth's surface, sedimentary rocks form in two ways: by the accumulation of rock grains or by the formation of a solid from minerals dissolved in water. The fragments that go into making sedimentary rocks can be as big as boulders or as small as clay particles. Over long periods of time, the upper layers of debris compress the lower layers, squeezing out excess water or air trapped between the rock fragments. Under the pressure, individual fragments eventually dissolve and stick together, or the remaining fluid within the sediment brings in other substances that act as a cement, until the sediment has turned into rock. Scientists classify many sedimentary rocks based on the size of the particles that built the rock; mudstone and sandstone, for example, originally came from fine-grained mud and sand deposits that hardened over long time periods.

Tilted conglomerate deposits, Death Valley, California, USA
Photograph by Marli Bryant Miller

About Layers (Strata) in Sedimentary Rocks

Wind, water, and ice pick up rock and mineral grains, the building blocks of sedimentary rocks, and eventually deposit them in horizontal or nearly horizontal layers. Geologists call these layers strata (a single layer is a stratum, from the Latin word for cover). Humans can see multiple layers of sedimentary rock in places where natural erosion or human digging has exposed them to view. By studying the order in which the strata were deposited, a discipline of geology called stratigraphy, geologists can estimate the relative ages of the layers. As a general principle, the oldest strata are at the bottom of a stack of layers, and the youngest strata are at the top. Sometimes, though, the forces of earthquakes or plate tectonics tilt or buckle strata in various places, or even overturn the strata and bring the oldest layers to the top. In such cases, scientists must use other clues, such as ripple marks from past wind and water motion or fossils, to figure out the original orientation of the strata.