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Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

6 Archaean seismites of the Ventersdorp Supergroup,
South Africa

6.1 Abstract
This contribution documents the discovery of seismites in pyroclastic lithologies of
the Kameeldoorns Formation of the late Archean (2.8 - 2.65 Ga) Ventersdorp
Supergroup, South Africa. A variety of well-preserved sedimentary structures
document the seismites, comprising synsedimentary faults, convolute bedding,
graben-like downsagging structures, synsedimentary breccias, and syneresis cracks.
Earthquakes associated with synsedimentary faulting and intrabasinal volcanic
activity that affected the unconsolidated sediments of the Kameeldoorns Formation
explain the origin of these structures.
6.2 Introduction
The detection of unmistakable fingerprints of seismic events in the rock record is of
special importance, as it provides valuable insight into basin dynamics. Deposits with
such shock-induced structures are termed seismites (Seilacher, 1969; 1984); their
development is commonly associated with fault-controlled extensional basins, where
vibratory ground motions generated by faulting lead to liquefaction and fluidization of
sediments (Mastalerz and Wojewoda, 1993; Bhattacharya and Bandyopadhyay,
Textural evidence of earthquake tremors in sedimentary records is subtle and its
recognition is often tenuous. Especially in the Precambrian rock record, seismites
have hardly been noticed. Hassler et al. (2000) recognized possible seismites in the
2.6 Ga old Hamersley Basin, in close association with impact-generated tsunami
deposits. However, the description of the latter structures as seismites remains
inconclusive. The oldest well-documented seismites are from the Proterozoic (2.3 Ga,
Bose et al., 1997) Chaibasa Formation in India (Bhattacharya and Bandyopdhyay,
1998). Proterozoic and Phanerozoic seismites, however, have been recognized and
documented repeatedly (e.g. Pratt, 1994; Knaust, 2002; Simms, 2003).

Schneiderhan E. A., Bhattacharya H. N., Zimmermann U. and Gutzmer J. (2005). Archean seismites
of the Ventersdorp Supergroup, South Africa. South African Journal of Geology, 108, 345 - 350.
Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

In this contribution, we document the occurrence of well-preserved seismites in the
Neoarchaean Ventersdorp Supergroup, Kaapvaal Craton, South Africa. The
recognition of seismites in sedimentary rocks that are free of current-generated
structures gives evidence of the development and stabilization of young continental
crust. Furthermore, it illustrates that delicate sedimentary structures can be preserved
even in sedimentary successions of Archaean age.
6.3 Geological Setting
The Ventersdorp Supergroup in central southern Africa represents a well-preserved
and hardly deformed volcano-sedimentary succession of Neoarchaean age (2.8 -
2.65 Ga) (Fig. 6.1; van der Westhuizen et al., 1991). It was deposited unconformably
on the Au-bearing succession of the Witwatersrand Supergroup, and crystalline
Archaean basement. It is discordantly overlain by sedimentary rocks of the late
Archaean to Paleoproterozoic Transvaal Supergroup, as well as siliciclastic rocks of
the Permian Karoo Supergroup (Fig. 6.2). Today, the Ventersdorp Supergroup is
preserved over an area of approximately 200000 km
(Fig. 6.1). Its thickness varies
considerably between different localities, reaching locally up to 5100 m, of which
about 60 % consists of sedimentary rocks (van der Westhuizen and de Bruiyn, 2000).
The Ventersdorp Supergroup is divided into three groups: the Klipriviersberg Group
at the base, followed by the Platberg Group and the Pniel Group on top (Fig. 6.2). All
groups are separated by erosional unconformities (van der Westhuizen et al., 1991).
The Klipriviersberg Group exclusively consists of mafic volcanic rocks and has been
subdivided into six formations (Winter, 1976). The Platberg Group includes various
sedimentary rocks and mafic to intermediate lava flows and is divided into the
Kameeldoorns, Makwassie and Rietgat Formations (Winter, 1976). The Pniel Group
consists of the sedimentary Bothaville Formation and the volcanic Allanridge
Formation that constitutes the youngest part of the Ventersdorp Supergroup.

Chapter 6 Archaean seismites


Fig. 6.1: Geological map showing the preserved extent and known surface
outcrops of the Ventersdorp Supergroup on the Kaapvaal Craton in southern
Africa (modified from Eriksson et al., 2002). The seismites examined in this
study originate from the exploration diamond drill core KFN1 located to the
northwest of the small town of Allanridge.
The seismites were discovered during the study of diamond drill core (KFN1) that
intersects the entire Ventersdorp succession in the northern Free State, South Africa,
where it has been drilled a few km northwest of the small town of Allanridge. The
seismites are found in the upper Kameeldoorns Formation (Fig. 6.2).

Chapter 6 Archaean seismites


Fig. 6.2: Stratigraphy of the Ventersdorp Supergroup in core KFN1 (A),
illustrating the detailed lithostratigraphy of the Kameeldoorns Formation (B).
Sixteen different horizons with seismites were identified in the fine-grained
pyroclastic deposits of the upper Kameeldoorns Formation (C).
: U-Pb
SHRIMP zircon-ages from Armstrong et al. (1991).
6.4 Petrography
The base of the Kameeldoorns Formation in drill core KFN1 is constituted of
volcaniclastic conglomerates, intercalated with andesitic lava flows. This succession
grades into siliciclastic conglomerates that are in turn overlain by wackes. The wackes
are intercalated with reworked pyroclastic ash deposits and thin carbonate-rich units
with stromatolitic structures. The fine- grained reworked ash deposits in the upper
part of KFN1 display a variety of well-preserved delicate sedimentary structures,
including cross-bedding, small channels, erosional surfaces, traction carpets and
various soft sediment structures indicative of dewatering processes or concomitant
tectonic activity. Seismites were recognized in several portions within these
pyroclastic units (Fig. 6.2).
Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

The reworked ash deposits are of dark grey colour, and very fine grained. They
display normal-graded bedding and are deformed in a wave-like fashion, which might
originate from reworking and transport over a short distance. The reworked ash
deposits are composed of quartz, calcite, muscovite and chlorite that suggest a very
low grade metamorphic overprint.
Carbonate-rich units with stromatolitic structures are finely intercalated with the
reworked ash deposits that host the seismites. These carbonate-rich units are
characterized by soft-sediment deformation, including convolute bedding, water
escape textures, and small-scale displacements, as well as resedimented rip-up clasts.
They form thin, irregular layers (< 1 cm) composed essentially of calcitic
microsparite, intercalated with ash laminae consisting of microcrystalline quartz.
6.5 Indications for basinal seismicity
The studied sedimentary structures are similar to those described by previous authors
(Johnson, 1977; Seilacher, 1984; Cojan and Thiry, 1992; Bhattacharya and
Bandyopadhyay, 1998; Pratt, 1998). In the studied core section, sixteen horizons
(Fig. 6.2) with a thickness of 1 cm to 16 cm were recognized to where soft-sediment
deformation had occurred. The following structures were observed and documented in
Fig. 6.3:
6.5.1 Synsedimentary faults
Synsedimentary faults are developed in the reworked pyroclastic ash deposits
(Fig. 6.3 a) at several stratigraphic levels of the studied section. The faults die out in
an upward direction. The contacts between the upthrown and downthrown blocks are
relatively sharp. Single faults branch out upward to numerous faults with smaller
throw. Upward decrease in net throw implies repeated reactivation of the fault as
sedimentation continued. Such fault geometry documents a dying force as observed in
earthquake aftershocks (Seilacher, 1969, 1984).

Chapter 6 Archaean seismites


Fig. 6.3: Photographs of seismites found in KFN1. The arrows point to the described sedimentary
structures. a: Synsedimentary faults. b: Convolute lamination. c: Graben-like downsagging structures.
d: Syn-sedimentary breccia. e: Syneresis cracks. For detailed description refer to text.
6.5.2 Convolute lamination
Convolute lamination is observed in microsparitic carbonate layers, which are
intercalated with finely laminated reworked ash deposits (Fig. 6.3 b). Intensely
deformed laminae represent the centre of these structures, exhibiting a complex
geometry. The convolute lamination gradually passes upward into undeformed, plane-
laminated and fine-grained reworked pyroclastic ash deposits. The lamination below
the convolute units becomes gradually planar in downward direction.
Localized expulsion of pore water from a liquefied bed and foundering of overlying
sediments forming troughs are regarded as the cause of such convolute lamination
(Allen, 1977). The smoothness of the folds in the convoluted layers in the present case
suggests that the sediment was weak (liquefied) during deformation. Intensely
deformed central parts of the convolute lamination further suggest that the horizon
was liquefied several times under the influence of some repeating triggers. Simply
deformed peripheral troughs (not shown here) are the product of late and continued
Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

6.5.3 Graben-like downsagging structures
Fault-bounded graben-like downsagging structures are developed in the reworked ash
deposits (Fig. 6.3 c). Movement along faults, developed in pairs with opposite sense,
was responsible for the graben-like structures that are capped by centimeter-thick
breccia layers. The reworked ash layers, on which the grabens are formed, are thinned
below the grabens. This suggests that the layers on which the grabens are developed,
were liquefied and material was transported away at the time of graben formation.
Identical structures have been described as seismites by Sims (1975), Mastalerz and
Wojewoda (1993), Seth et al. (1990) and Bhattacharya and Bandyopadhyay (1998).
6.5.4 Synsedimentary breccia
Synsedimentary breccias (Fig. 6.3 d), similar to those described by Plaziat et al.
(1990) and Seth et al. (1990), occur at several stratigraphic levels, where they are
developed as bedding parallel layers with 1 cm to 4 cm thickness. Fragmentation of
laminated, fine-grained pyroclastic ash deposits produced these breccia layers. The
lower contact of the breccias with the undeformed pyroclastic rock is irregular,
whereas the upper contact is sharp and flat (Fig. 6.3 d). The degree of brecciation and
development of chaotic fabric varies. In some of the brecciated horizons fragments of
pyroclastics show matching boundaries with little displacement, whereas in other
cases fragments result in highly disorganized and matrix-supported breccias. In
breccias with disorganized fabric, the pyroclastic fragments near the base show layer
parallel orientation, but near the top they become chaotic (Fig. 6.3 d).
The brecciated layers resemble the rubble zone in fault grading stratigraphy
described by Seilacher (1969) that is strongly suggestive of seismic origin.
Development of disorganized fabrics in the breccias strongly argues in favor of
liquefaction and flowage. Increase in the rate of disorganization of framework
elements from the base to the top of the layers and in between layers reflects variation
in the degree of liquefaction. Irregular lower contact and flat upper contact of the
breccia layers indicate that deformation took place at the sediment-water interface
prior to burial. This may be used to suggest a possible role of vibratory ground
motions and related compressive stresses during propagation of earthquake waves
(Pratt, 2002). Repeated occurrence of breccia layers separated by short intervals of
undeformed sediments further suggests recurrence of earthquakes.
Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

6.5.5 Syneresis cracks
Syneresis cracks, in mm- to cm-scale, are developed preferentially in very fine-
grained interlayers of the pyroclastic rocks. The cracks are filled by somewhat coarser
pyroclastic material. The size of the syneresis cracks is usually proportional to the
thickness of the mudstone layers, with bigger cracks developed in thicker layers
(Fig. 6.3 e). In the core sections, some syneresis cracks are parallel-sided, while others
are lenticular, or V-shaped and typically tapering downward but commonly upward as
well (Fig. 6.3 e). Vertical and straight cracks are rare, while cracks with varying
inclinations are common. Deformed cracks with S- or Z-shaped folded geometry are
Syneresis in general takes place at depths in wet clayey sediment by essentially
instantaneous intrastratal shrinkage and dewatering, usually accompanied by
liquefaction and injection of interbedded sands and silts in all direction (Pratt, 1998).
Deflocculation and lattice contraction of clay minerals due to salinity changes in pore
water was the most commonly held view for the origin of syneresis cracks (Plummer
and Gostin, 1981). Such processes can, however, not cause injection of fluidized
sediments into the cracks created by shrinkage. For fluidization and injection of
sediment along cracks syneresis has to be accompanied by dynamic sediment
remobilization. Strong ground motion from syndepositional earthquakes provide a
mechanism that accounts for the spectrum of mud dewatering, fissuring, sand/silt
liquefaction and injection (Pratt, 1998).
6.6 Discussion
Soft-sediment deformation structures form during or shortly after deposition, when
sediments become liquefied and/or fluidized under the influence of a dynamic trigger
of sufficient strength (Allen, 1982; Seilacher, 1969, 1984; Plaziat et al., 1990;
Rossetti, 1999). Gravity-induced mass movement, sudden sediment loading, storm
impact and seismic shocks are possible natural triggers. The soft-sediment
deformation structures documented of Neoarchaean age may have originated from
any of these possible triggers. However, seismic activity is considered as most
plausible origin because of the following reasons:
Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

i. The structures occur in a sedimentary succession that is developed in a
volcanically active basin. Movement of intrabasinal faults that are
common in such basins are commonly associated with seismic shocks.
ii. The soft-sediment deformation structures are confined to stratigraphic
levels separated by entirely undeformed strata. This reveals the
instantaneous nature of the trigger mechanism, which affected only
specific beds.
iii. The deformation events are episodic in nature and there is no fixed interval
between the events that produced the soft-sediment deformation
structures. Lack of fixed periodicity is characteristic for seismic activity.
iv. The deformed sediments are entirely fine grained and thinly laminated.
There is no evidence for gravity-induced mass movement or sudden
sediment loading.
v. Strong current and/or wave-generated structures are absent, which
preclude the possibility of storm impact or current drag for liquefaction
and fluidization of sediments.
vi. Growth faults and form discordant convolutes record the repeated but
waning force of the triggering agent, which is common in case of
earthquake aftershocks.
Therefore, it is concluded that the soft-sediment deformation structures documented
from the Ventersdorp Supergroup are best explained by seismic activity, probably
associated with intrabasinal faults reactivated during synsedimentary volcanisms.
Ground tremors generated during dislocations of the basin floor during earthquakes
would have caused instabilities in unconsolidated to semi-consolidated sediments,
resulting in the soft-sediment deformation structures observed.
6.7 Conclusion
The Kameeldoorns Formation of the Neoarchaean Ventersdorp Supergroup, South
Africa, contains the oldest known seismites, and the only unequivocally identified
seismites of Archaean age. Seismites described in this study are the products of
liquefaction and fluidization of sediments. Detailed analysis indicates that the
instability of the unconsolidated reworked pyroclastic ash deposits was most probably
Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

associated with vibratory ground motions generated by earthquakes that are
tentatively explained by movements along intrabasinal faults.
6.8 References
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Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

Knaust D. (2002) Pinch-and-swell structures at the Middle/Upper Muschelkalk
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Chapter 6 Archaean seismites

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