The Treasure of Thundereggs

By Kathryn Bradfield

I was first introduced to the lithophysae known as “thundereggs” on a trip to New Mexico during Labor Day weekend, 2007. My fiancé, Ed, has always had an interest in rocks and had spent some time in west Texas hunting agates at the Woodard Ranch, south of Alpine. He wanted to go back out to hunt on one of his holidays with his kids, and I wanted to return to visit my beloved New Mexico. I thought a trip to Rockhound State Park in Deming, New Mexico might be nice way to sate both of our desires. What interested us in this remote place, was: 1) the name; 2) the park allows visitors to take 15 pounds of rocks home with them and encourages digging; 3) it was remote and far from the hustle and bustle of Dallas; and 4) the area is known to yield lithophysae, or “thundereggs”. All of this had us full of anticipation of finding all sorts of geological wonders. Rockhound State Park is actually about 15 miles south of Deming, via a winding road off Interstate 10. Deming is a small town in the middle of nowhere, and

surrounded by a desolate and rather ugly area of Chihuahuan Desert. In the area of Rockhound State Park however, the desert rises into the Little Florida Mountains and yields to the splendor that only a desert lover understands. I had to train myself not to notice the flora and fauna and to fixate upon the ground I was standing upon. There were indeed all sorts of interesting rocks everywhere. But being in a park named for rock hounding, one tends to become a sort of “rock snob”, snubbing common looking jasper and perlite in the hope of finding the coveted and elusive “thundereggs”.
Rockhounding with the kids in the Little Florida Mountains, New Mexico

“Thunderegg” and not “lithophysa” became a part of our vernacular and nothing could keep us from picking up every gnarly looking roundish stone and whacking it open with hammers and chisels hoping to find something beautiful. The Genesis of Thundereggs Historically, thundereggs according to Zeitner (1979, p 1260) have been called a number of things including: “agate nodules”, “eggs” and “agate eggs”. Most commonly “thunderegg” (one word) is used. This is thought to have Native American origins -- named because the “when the thunder spirits living in the high

recesses of snow-capped Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson became angry with one another, amid violent thunder and lightening storms, they would hurl these spherical rocks at each other. The hostile gods obtained these weapons by stealing eggs from the thunderbirds' nests. " ( pamphlet) Perhaps not to far off the mark, because thundereggs are only found in volcanic formations. Technically, a thunderegg is a lithophysa (pl. lithophysae) of Greek origin meaning “stone bubble”. The stone bubbles, or spherulites, typically have hollow centers and open spaces lined with tiny crystals. How these “stone bubbles” are formed is a bit more complex. These are known as concretions or as nodules that begin as spheroids. The rhyolite they form from is about the thickness of toothpaste and is pulled by turbulence and by buoyancy from the mother rhyolite and into the perlite. This forms spheres and as temperatures fall slowly, crystals form which pushes gases out of the solution in the semi-molten rock, literally forming bubbles. Water flows through the cavities of the forming thunderegg and precipitates from solution a wide variety of elements and minerals into concentric layers. This makes thundereggs
Geologic Map of the Stendel Perlite Deposit, Socorro, NM

always unique and a rare find. Thundereggs are always found in perlite beds and the product of its decomposition, clay. A geological map helps show these rock formations. As bubbles are forming from trapped steam and other gases, the volcanic lava begins to cool and silica and feldspar minerals will crystallize within the bubbles and may grow crystal fibers that radiate outwards from the core of each thunderegg. Increasing pressure forms a larger hollow opening, later filled with even more mineral-rich water. More segments around the hollow form wedges, which expand further with the pressure, forming a deposite in the middle that looks much like a star. Different silicas and minerals fill the cracks and cavities which can form many interesting patterns and colors.

The progressive stage in the opening of a cavity in lithophysae is captured in these specimens, as controlled by the pressure of depth in the deposit from which they came.

Banded agates, chalcedony, quartz, opal and amethyst can fill the cavities of these rocks. Each region where thundereggs are formed have a signature style and coloration due to the differences of minerals which seeped into the rock during its formation.

Hot lava can be destructive to quartz, let alone agate and opal which can withstand far less heat than quartz. Opal, however is a hydrated form of SiO2, which means it has water in its molecular structure. This accounts for gem makers having

to cut and polish opal when wet. These makes opal able to survive more heat without completely being destroyed and explains how thundereggs containing opal could be carried by lava flows and survive.

The Geode Kid
The leading expert on thundereggs is Robert “Paul, The Geode Kid” Colburn. He owns the Basin Range Volcanics Geolapidary Museum and Rock Shop, located two miles outside of Rockhound State Park. This place is an oddity and a treat. It claims to be the largest thunderegg museum in the country. The driveway is paved in thundereggs; culls I suppose. I snuck one from the road into the console of our rental car when no one was looking. As we stepped out of the car, I have to admit I was a bit shy in approaching the “museum”. It was basically a shack, the walls were barely standing, there were gigantic solar panels on the makeshift roof, and canvas tarps hung down on one side of the building giving the shack “air conditioning”. Huge timbers made up the door tunnel (not an actual doorway), which gave you the feeling you were stepping into a mine and not a museum. There was written upon the door in paint a command to KNOCK. We were met by the manager of the museum, Christopher Blackwell, (who might as well have been the actor Christopher Walken for his weirdness), and his cat, leashed to a clothesline in order to keep the coyotes from getting it. The floors were dirt and as Christopher switched on the electricity for us visitors, the darkness of the hole illuminated to
Robert “Paul, The Geode Kid” Colburn;

reveal rows of tables clothed in Indian striped blankets and lined in very expensive thundereggs, all with price tags, cut into halves and slices and polished to a brilliant gleam. One had to touch them. The thundereggs in this “museum” were arranged by locale. Most, about 80%, were from The Geode Kid’s own mine in Luna County, NM. Others were from Colorado, California, and Oregon. Instantly you could see that each region had characteristic colors; blue, red, brown and green banding patterns in different rocks.
Shadow agate from the Baker Egg Mine, Deming, NM

The Geode Kid, told reporter, "I recognized early on that each deposit has unique thunder eggs. You could mix up thunder eggs from a hundred different locations and I'd be able to tell where they came from."

Finding Thundereggs
Thundereggs are only found in areas of previous volcanic activity. Therefore, these lithophysae are only found in perlite or its product of decomposed clay. Perlite is often associated with rhyolite. This is important when consulting geologic maps. On geologic maps, first search for rhyolite and then look within the types of rhyolite, if it is broken down. Maps which include perlite deposits are the best for finding thundereggs. On maps, “Tvr” refers to “Tertiary volcanics, rhyolite”; where tertiary

refers to the age of the rock in the area which is typical of most, if not all lithophysae. “Tper” indicates perlite deposits. This indicator on a map is even more specific for sites where thundereggs are likely to be found.

a geologic map of Pyramid Mountain near Lordsburg, NM

Locations of thundereggs in the United States are chiefly in the western half, within the Rocky Mountains. Thundereggs are also found in Mexico, various parts of South America, Africa as well as Germany, France, and Queensland, Australia. One of the more famous areas to mine thundereggs is in the Priday Blue Beds of North Central Oregon. Here blue agate can be found within oval-shaped thundereggs which is coveted by collectors.

a) The Priday Blue Beds ; b) Very fine polished halves of a Priday Blue Bed thunderegg from Oregon. This is described by collectors as “Beautiful scenes of ocean and tubes in the sky.”

The thundereggs found at Rockhound State Park in New Mexico are chiefly, spherical and consist of two distinct parts: a dark-gray to pinkish outer part and a white, blue, or gray inner part, or core. In many examples, these two parts can be described as a shell and a filling.
Thunderegg from Rockhound State Park (photo by Robert Colburn).

Tiltage thundereggs, can be found at Rockhound State Park. These are filled with horizontal layers of agate and chalcedony that are overlain by concentric-banded agate and chalcedony; the contact between the layered and banded agate resembles an angular unconformity (Fig. c). These thundereggs record the history of either small local landslides or tilting of local fault blocks within the Little Florida Mountains while the crystals were precipitating from the fluid (Fig. 6; Shaub, 1979; Colburn, 1999).

b .

c .

a .

a) Schematic cross section of formation of tiltage spherulite (modified from Colburn, 1999); b) This rock, was broken at some point and then a. shifted presumably by faulting. Breccia (broken rock fragments)fell into the crack and then more silica-laden water sealed it and “re-agatized” the fissure; c) From Rockhound State Park, a “tiltage rock”. The agate and opal layers show a re-position caused by a landslide as the layers were forming. Shell fragments are found in the opal.

Geodes and Thundereggs -- The Same Thing?
Are geodes and thundereggs the same thing? Not exactly. The differences can be confusing. Geodes are hollow and crystal-lined cavities found in igneous and sedimentary rocks. Whereas thundereggs also known as spherulites are mostly solid formed exclusively by magmatic and volcanic processes. Thundereggs usually show concentric layers of different mineral deposits which have solidified.

Our trip to Rockhound State Park yielded many small chunks of perlite which had fallen from the sides of the mountains and lots of jasper, but our thunderegg finds were not as fruitful. Now, having completed this research, I realize that we were looking in the wrong area. Geological maps of the park show that most of the rhyolite was much higher and a bit beyond where we were primarily searching. We did however find a few rocks which were legitimate thundereggs although The Geode Kid would have probably laughed at our finds and paved his driveway with them, as they were not premium quality. Some of the rocks with cavities we found would be defined as geodes, lined with small crystals -- many lavender which were identified as amethyst, although no large crystals. This implies that these rocks cooled a bit slower than the typical thunderegg which contains opal and agate but not slow enough to form large crystals. Many

rocks we cracked open contained opal which was brittle and often found as small white crumbles on the ground around heavily traveled trails where lots of rock whacking had been done. My introduction to thundereggs left me hungry to find some more. Banging out a hole in a rock for 20 minutes in 90 degree heat is not easy, but the thought of a beautiful unique desert rocks that no one in the world had ever seen before that could possibly be valuable kept me going. An expensive thunderegg could be thousands of dollars. The size of the thunderegg and the colors within is really what is important in determining its value and whether people think it’s pretty. If it has a lot of bright colors or interesting layers people will value it more. So after a day of rockhounding, you end up with a bag and a bucket of rocks having no idea of what you have found is even worth. The thing with thundereggs is you can’t figure out what you really have until you take them home and polish them up. The only thing that really matters in thunderegg hunting is if you like what you found enough to keep it and come back for more.

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