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Sedimenrology (1983) 30,91-103

Water escape structures in the context of a depositional model of a mass flow dominated conglomeratic fan-delta (Abrioja Formation, Pliocene, Almeria Basin, SE Spain)
G E O R G E POSTMA Geological Institute of Amsterdam, Nieuwe Prinsengracht 130, 1018 V Z Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Pebbly sediments of the shallow marine Abrioja fan-delta show pockets (bowl-shaped structures, partly filled with pebbles) and pillars (elongate structures, filled with sand and pebbles). These structures are most abundant in pebbly sediments deposited on a steep slope (cn. 25'-10") and are absent in conglomerates deposited on a slope of ca. 6 and less, although they are present in the pelitic top of these beds. The pocket and pillar structures are interpreted as fluid escape structures originating from local liquefaction and fluidization, processes which are favoured by rapid deposition, rapid sediment accumulation, the presence of less permeable layers and an immature sediment texture. These conditions are met in conglomeratic fan-deltas, which have steep slopes with immature sediments. It is concluded that the presence of fluid escape structures in conglomeratic sediments may indicate a steep depositional slope.

INTRODUCTION Water escape structures are generally found in rapidly deposited sediments. They are often described from thick bedded sandstones and turbidites (Wentworth, 1967; Stauffer, 1967; Laird, 1970; Lowe & LoPicollo, 1974; Lowe, 1975; Hein, 1979 and many others). Water escape structures form most easily in silts and sands, whilst coarser grained sediments, with their higher permeability, are thought to be less susceptible to the formation of these structures (Seed, 1968; Lee &Seed, 1967; Seed & Idriss, 1971, cited in Lowe, 1975). Reports of dewatering structures in conglomeratic sediments are very scarce. The most detailed report of water escape structures in conglomeratic sediments is that by Hein (1979) on sediments of the Cap Enrage Formation (Middle CambrianLower Ordovician, Quebec). This formation represents a submarine channel (Johnson, 1974), which has a braided system of bars and channels, flanked by finer grained terraces (Hein, 1979,1982). Some terrace
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01983 International Association of Sedimentologists

deposits experienced syn- or early post-depositional liquefaction, producing fluid escape structures in graded fine conglomerate (a-axis greater than 16 mm), pebbly sandstone and sandstone. In some cases the conglomeratic lower part of these beds showed dish and pillar structures, with a maximum size for the dishes of 60cm width and 3 c m height in pebbly sandstones and a maximum size for the pillars of 50 cm in height and 7 cm width in conglomerates (Hein, 1979, 1982). Pillar and pocket structures (the latter structure has not been described previously) will be described from conglomeratic sediments in the context of a depositional model for the Abrioja fan-delta (Postma, 1981a). The presence of the structures in conglomeratic sediments seems to be connected with a steep depositional slope. Invesiigations into two other similar fan-deltas in SE Spain, namely the Espiritu Santos Formation in the Vera basin, described by Volk (1966, 1967) and the Ruzafas Formation in the Lorca basin, described by Gee1 (1977), of Pliocene and Tortonian/Messinien 91


G. Postma During the Pliocene the Almeria basin was a marginal basin, deepening towards the present Mediterranean Sea where a shallow marine fan-delta was prograding on to the shelf by means of mass flow deposits (Postma, 1979, 1981a; Fig. 2). The basin floor mudstones are characterized by bioturbation and an abundant fauna of pelecypods, including Amusium cristatum. The prograding delta is overlain by fluvial conglomerates, subaerial debris flow sediments and associated floodplain deposits with palaeosols, the latter containing caliche nodules and Helix sp. The sediments comprising the Abrioja fan-delta are immature and ill-sorted. Common components are quartzites (subangular), schists, dolomites and limestones, phyllites and fragments of quartz and phyllosilicates. The metamorphic components are mainly derived from the surrounding alpine basement (Nevado-Filabride and Alpujarride Complexes). In addition, Tortonian turbidite sandstone fragments and Messinien reef limestone fragments are present. The grain-size ranges up to boulder grade. The matrix between the pebbles is poorly sorted and consists of a mixture of mud and multi-size sand. A minor amount of clay is present in the sandy conglomeratic part of the beds.

age respectively, show the same structures in a similar sedimentary setting. The pocket and pillar structures are well exposed along the road Almeria-Tabernas (route 340) at km pole 130, and west of this point in the Rambla de Tabernas, a dry river course. The cross-section cut by the Rambla de Tabernas shows almost the entire fandelta sequence (Fig. 1).


The Almeria basin is situated in the SE part of Spain and is one of the intermontane basins of late Miocene age in the Betic Cordilleras. The Pliocene deposits of the Abrioja Formation are erosive into, and overlie with an angular unconformity, Miocene marls, turbidites and gypsum deposits (Fig. 1). For a complete description of the geology the reader is referred to Jacquin (1970), Iaccarrino e t a [ . (1975), Addicott et al. (1978) and Postma (1978).

Abrioja fan-delta
Progradation of the Abrioja fan-delta is due to repeated overloading, slumping and resedimentation of the sediment (Postma, 1981a). Facies analysis suggests three main phases in the delta build-up (Figs. 2 and 3): (1) a primary outbuilding phase with thin foresets of pebbles, sand and mud dipping more than ca. 25" (facies 11); (2) a secondary outbuilding phase with thick giant foresets of pebbly sandstone and sandy conglomerates dipping between 25"-10" (facies 111); (3) a tertiary outbuilding phase deposited on a slope of approximate 6" and less, with thick beds of clast supported and imbricated pebbles (facies VA and VB), and associated overbank deposits (facies VC and VD). Thick lenses of very ill-sorted angular debris deposits are exposed throughout the delta section and are interpreted as being subaerial debris flows, which have directly passed into deeper water (facies I). The location of the water escape structures are also indicated on Fig. 3. On the steep slope of the proximal delta they may occur throughout the bed(s); on the gentle slope of the distal delta they are mainly present in the pelitic top of the bed (unit 3). A coarse-tail graded disorganised pebble layer (with outsize peb-

Fig. 1. Sketch map of the western part of the Almeria basin. (A) Metamorphic basement. (B) Mark, turbidites, limestones and gypsum deposits (late Miocene). (C) Fan-delta deposits of the Ahrioja Formation (early? Pliocene). (D) Continental deposits of the Gador Formation (Pliocene). (Q) Quaternary deposits. The arrows indicate easily accessible exposures with water escape structures.

Water escape structures



Fig. 2. A resedimentation model for sediments of the Abrioja Formation. Overloading of minor slump deposits accumulated on a steep depositional slope initiates a major slump.

bles) at the contact of the conglomeratic and the mudstone units (unit 2 and 3 respectively, see Fig. 3) may be disrupted and loaded by dewatering of the conglomeratic unit (Postma, 1979, 1981b).


Water escape structures in pebbly sediments may be easily overlooked and are sometimes only revealed through detailed examination. The structures which will be described here, namely pocket and pillar structures, have been found in pebbly mud, pebbly sandstones and conglomerates. Pockets are more or less bowl-shaped structures, several centimetres to several decimetres in both height and diameter (Fig. 4). They are (partly) filled with clast supported granules and pebbles, which are sometimes coarse-tail normal graded. In some cases the infills show additional structures such as water escape pillars (type B-pillars, classification Lowe, 1975) and small pockets of some centimetres in

diameter. Cross-bedding or pebble imbrications have not been found in the pockets. The three-dimensional shape of the pocket strictures could be observed from two sections parallel to the bedding plane (Fig. 7E). Pillars are elongate structures (see Lowe, 1975), with an (exposed) length generally less than one metre and with a diameter of less than ca. 15 cm (Figs 5 and 6). In conglomeratic sediments pillars are generally marked by a coarser grain size of the matrix and by pebble alignments, often with a preferred pebble orientation. Pillars may be straight, sinuous or branching. Occasionally the infill of pillars consists of pebbles and granules, which are sometimes coarsetail graded; others have a pebble-free centre (Fig. 6). The fan-shaped top above some pillars (Fig. 5) consists of paths of different grain size (bent type Bpillars). In both pocket and pillar structures the infill is in some cases multi-stage. Poorly defined pocket structures are descriptively named pebble-clusters (see for example Fig. 9), although they are assumed to be genetically related with the pocket structures as shown in Fig. 4, because pebbles have sunk downwards.














I S L r O b f or







I U A M A S I V E PEBeLY SANDSTONE 1maLrl.X Supp 1 rno,aea channo1,zea water e r e o p r structures I U B STRATIFIED CONGLOMERATES deflected p o c k e t s and p l l l ~ r s unlt 2 In THIN STRATIFIED CONGLOMERATES AND SANDSTONE ipocket5 ana p ~ i i o r r l

Fig. 3. A depositional model of the Abrioja fan-delta, with the locations of the pocket and pillar structures.


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Fig. 4. Pocket structures: stratified conglomeratic sands (facies IV) are cut off by pockets. The interlayered mudstone shows no deformation due to loading of the large pocket structure. At the bottom of the pocket the pebbles and granules are clastsupported and, in this case. layered and coarse-tail normal graded. The top part of the pocket iacks pebbles (compare this large pocket with the smaller one at the left, which does not show grading and layering). Inside the pocket, water escape pathways ( I ) . indicated by ;I coarser grain siLe occur near the wall of the pocket. In such pathways concentrations of small pebbles and granules form small pockets (2). At location (3) the wall of the pocket is interrupted by a pillar structure. Layer (4) is a diffuse mudstone layer and ( 5 ) a bent mudstone layer, which probably loaded into the pocket structure. These pocket structures are interpreted as water escape structures due to local liquefaction. Scale bar is 15 cm (photograph D. Postma).


G . Postma

Pockets and pillars in the context of the Abrioja fandelta

With decreasing slope the following dewatering structures are recognized (see Fig. 3) :

the upper part of the bed (Fig. 9). Pebble-clusters can also be seen where stratification of the top part of the beds has become blurred. In some cases the pockets and pillars in such beds are bent in a downcurrent direction.

Facies I : pocket and pillar structures are absent. Facies ZI: hydroplastic deformation, pockets, and pillars (Figs 6 , 7B, C) are regularly found in foresets which are ascribed to facies 11. Not all the steep sloping foresets of this facies show these structures, however. On those occasions the beds show parallel streaks of pebbles, sand and silt. Facies ZZIA: in the massive pebbly sandstones of facies IIIA branching pillars can sometimes be traced more than 1 m in the exposure (Fig. 8). The pillars form thickenings filled with pebble-clusters, as shown on the drawing in Fig. 8(B). Although the intricate branching system of Fig. 8 has been observed only once, large individual sinuous pillars in pebbly sandstones have been more regularly found. This is in contrast with massive yellow sandy beds (containing Balanus sp. which are probably derived from the coastal zone) deposited on the same slope. These beds only show clast supported pebble-clusters which are randomly scattered through the bed. The pebble/granule clusters are bowl shaped and sometimes normal graded. However, the boundaries of these pebble-clusters are more diffuse than those of the pockets in Fig. 4, especially at the top of the structure, and disappear in the massive structure of the bed. These pebble-clusters are more erosion resistant and consequently the rocks weather in a patchy manner. Dish structures (asdescribed by Hein, 1979, from pebbly beds) have not been found.
Pockets at the base of sandy conglomerates are illustrated by Fig. 7(A). The coarse grained fill of these pockets does not always run from side to side of the structure, but is interrupted by finer grained pillars, which are most clear in the pocket at the right in the figure. Here the fine grained pillar runs through the bottom of the pocket, and this together with the direction of the palaeoslope (to the left in Fig. 7A) rules out a scour and fill interpretation for these pockets. Straight pillars as shown on Fig. $ 6 and 7(D) are often found directly under the mass flow deposits of facies IIIA in beds of facies IV.

Fucies I V : the finer grained interlobe sediments show the most extensive development of pocket and pillar structures in the stratified pebble, sand and mud beds described here (Figs 4, 5, 6 and 7D). The pockets (Fig. 4) and pillars (Fig. 5) are defined in this facies. They occur on various levels and are sometimes aligned in the beds. Superposition of pockets above pillars has been regularly observed. Facies V : pockets and pillars are absent in the imbricated clast supported conglomerates of facies V, but are present in the pelitic top of the bed. This top (unit 3, see Fig. 3) shows thin pillars (several centimetres diameter) of granules and small pebbles, in some cases bent in a downcurrent direction. Small

Fucies ZZZB :parallel bedded pebble-layers in conglomerate beds of facies IIIB show pebble-clusters or pocket structures, which truncate the stratification in

Fig. 5. Pillar structure in conglomeratic sands of facies IV. Pebble alignments and downward imbrication of the pebbles mark the structure which is interpreted as a water escape pillar due to liquefaction and/or fluidization. Note the fanshaped top of the structure and in the multi-stage infilling of the pillar (This pillar has been drawn from a detailed photograph of the pillar (I), shown in Fig. 7D.) Scale bar is 10 cm.

Water escape structures


Fig. 6. Sand-filled pillar in facies IV. Note the steep orientation of the pebbles along the margin, probably due to downward rotation of the pebbles during resedimentation of the channel fill. It is assumed that the pebbles have sunk to a channel part which is not exposed, while the part visible on the photograph represents the sandy top part. Just under the hammer an obscure pebble filled pillar can be seen (photograph Th.B. Roep).

Fig. 7. Pocket and pillar structures, interpreted as water escape structures (Abrioja fan-delta). Shafts of hammers are ca. 35 cm. (A) Pockets at the base of a massive pebbly sandstone bed (facies IIIA). The pebbleesand-mud stratification (facies IV) in the underlying beds have been sharply cut-off by the structures. Note the pillars ( I ) at the base, and the sand pillar (2) inside the pocket at the right. Palaeoslope was cm. IS -10' to the left (cannot be inferred from the photograph). (B) Pockets ( I ) and (2), and pillar (3) in a conglomeratic bed. Pocket (2) is marked by a downward deflection of the stratification into the structure. (C).Detail of vertical pillars (above hammer handle) in beds offacies 11. The structure shows pebbles in V-orientation. Note the pebble clusters in the top at the left ( I ) and at the right of the figure (2). (D) Pocket structure ( I ) cutting off primary stratification located above pillar ( ) from which a detailed drawing is shown 2,

Water escape structures








Fig. 7 ( c o t i t . ) . in Fig. 5. The fan top of pillar (2) and the remoulded sediment between the pillar and the pocket (1) suggest that the pocket has been formed due to water escaping trough pillar (2) (photograph D.J. Beets). (E) Plan view of a large pocket ( I ) and some other smaller pockets or pillars (2) found on the dip slope of the bed, which is shown in (B) in cross-section.


G. Postma shaped top above some pillars, the intimate association with small-scale loading, and dewatering pillars inside the pocket structures strongly suggest an origin by water escape mechanisms. In addition, the structures could be reproduced by means of simple experiments. In these experiments tap water running through a tube finds its way up through a layered alternation of pebbles, sand and mud under a water cover. A sudden increase in porefluid pressure by opening the water tap causes local remoulding of the sediment and the formation of a pillar or a pocket structure.

concentrations of pebbles (pebble-clusters) in the same unit could sometimes be classified as pocket structures. Structures in unit 3 are often vague, due to bioturbation and/or dewatering (Postma, 1979).

A number of possible explanations exist to account for the formation of the structures just described: (i) scour and fill; (ii) loading; (iii) bioturbation and/or (iv) escape of pore water. A variety of sedimentary structures inside the pockets such as water escape pillars and small pockets along the wall of the pocket (Fig. 4), vertical position of pebbles in fine-grained matrix, the absence of cross-bedding and above all their three-dimensional shape eliminates scour and fill as the cause of formation. Conventional loading as described from finegrained sediments (Kuenen, 1965, Lowe, 1975 and others) always affects the sediment around the structure, which is not the case here, as is shown by the undisturbed nature of the sedimentation structures cut off by the pockets and pillars. Some bioturbation activity may resemble pocketand pillar-like structures although in general the variability of the pockets and pillars compared with the more regular shaped burrows will usually provide sufficient criteria to distinguish between the two type of structure. There are, for example, vertical burrows in marine gravelly sand with walls lined with the flat lying shells of large foraminifera. These somewhat resemble dewatering channels lined with pebbles, but in the case of the burrow the fragments are well sorted in size and shape and are stacked up in a horizontal position Th.B. Roep, personal communication). Activities of organisms can remould the sediment, which causes the coarser fraction to sink to the bottom of the feeding zone, as described from tidal flat deposits, where shell layers may be produced 20-30 cm below the sediment surface by the activity of the sandworm Arenicola (Van Straaten, 1964). I have even found escape burrows in a 4 m thick pebble supported conglomerate bed (Miocene, Rambla del Cantelar, North of Fortuna, Murcia, SE Spain). One sinuous, sand-filled 'pipe' with an approximately constant diameter of 2.5 cm could be traced from the base of the bed almost into the sandy top. Further, the sedimentary setting of the pockets and pillars in the bed does not suggest an origin as bioturbation structures. The superposition of pockets above pillars as illustrated by Fig. 7(D), the fan-


The formation of water escape structures depends on the external influences acting on the sediment, and the internal sediment properties (Lowe, 1975). External influences such as earthquakes, cyclic oscillations (wave, tides, etc.) and rapid sediment accumulation may bring the sediment into a liquefied state (Moore, 1961; Dill, 1967; Andresen & Bjerrum, 1967). Sediment properties such as grain size, sorting, composition (presence of phyllosilicates) and permeability largely determine whether or not structures are produced and what kind they are. Finally the origin and type of structure may also depend on the total history of the sedimentary sequence (for example fining upward grading, rapid sedimentation, presence of c ross-bedd ing). The conglomeratic sediments in which the pocket and pillar structures are located in the Abrioja fan, are deposited on a steep depositional slope of approximately 25"-10". The steep slope, which is near the angle of repose for subaquatic sediments, suggests rapid deposition (for the pebbly sandstones probably in the order of seconds, see Lowe, 1976). Rapidly deposited sediments on slipfaces (Bagnold, 1954; Allen, 1972) and coarse grained mass flow deposits (cf. Lowe, 1975) generally have a high porosity and loose packing. Expulsion of pore-water by compaction is greatest from these poorly consolidated sediments icf. Lowe, 1975) and the chance of liquefaction (Seed & Idriss, 1971) and fluidization (Kunii & Levenspiel, 1969) is great in these beds. Renewed rapid sediment accumulation may cause a sudden increase of the pore-water pressure in the

Water escape structures


Fig. 8. (A) Branching pillar in a massive pebbly sandstone (facies IIIA), which is shown in detail in (B). The diffuse parallel laminations left of the hammer are cut off by the pillars. (B) Detail of a branching pillar, which gives the impression of a braided dewatering system in the bed

underlying beds. The pore-water pressure will be even higher if less permeable mud layers or ill-sorted immature sandy layers are present. A sufficiently high pore-water pressure will (locally) reduce the frictional resistance between the grains which promotes the escape of pore-water and the formation of water escape structures (cf. Lowe, 1975) and slumps (Chamberlain, 1964; Dill, 1967; Moore, 1961). The bowl-shaped pockets are interpreted as originating from local (or inhomogenous) liquefaction. Pebbles sank downwards by the reduced frictional resistance between the supporting grains, replacing the finer grains towards the top. Most of the porewater escaped along the margins of the pocket of Fig. 4. Lowe (1975, p. 167)used the term liquefaction pockets for local small areas of liquefaction. Pillars probably represent paths of (partial) fluidization (Lowe, 1975; Middleton & Southard, 1978, p. 4.23). As in pockets, pebbles sink downwards and sand will resediment at the top. Pebbles along the

channel wall, which are held in place during fluidization, are rotated downwards during resedimentation of the grains in the pillar (Figs 5 and 6), which causes the alignment and preferred orientations of the pebbles. In the case of the pillar shown in Fig. 6 it is assumed that the pebbles have sunk to a channel part which is not exposed, while the part visible on the photograph represents the sandy top.

In general it is difficult to fluidize very coarse grained sediments (cf. Seed, 1968; Lowe, 1975, p. 162). Rapid accumulation of pebbly sediments, together with the presence of less permeable sediment layers, may promote the build-up of sufficient high pore fluid pressures to liquefy and fluidize conglomeratic sediments.


G . Postma

I. Y

Fig. 9. Stratified conglomerates with dewatering structures. Scale bar is 5 cm. The structures (a) and (b) are indicated by clustering of pebbles. The lowest cluster (a) cuts off the primary stratification, which thins upwards together with a decrease in grain size. At level (b) the stratification is almost completely obliterated and the shape of pebble-clusters (b) suggest that they are deflected in downslope direction, probably by creep of the liquefied top.

These conditions may be met on the steep depositional slope ofconglomeratic fan-deltas as for example the Abrioja fan-delta (Postma, 1979, 1981a). Therefore the pocket and pillar structures described here can confidently be interpreted as fluid escape structures. The pillar structures, apart from the grain size, are similar to pillar structures described from silty/sandy sediments (cf. Lowe, 1975). The pocket structure is a new type of water escape structure, present in conglomeratic sediments, and may originate from local (or inhomogenous) liquefaction. Poorly defined pocket structures are here descriptively named pebbleclusters. Conglomerates of the Abrioja fan deposited on a slope of ca. 6" and less did not show these structures except in the pelitic top of these beds, where both pocket and pillar structures were recognized. Identical structures were found by the author in similar fan-deltas in the Vera and Lorca basin, SE Spain (Volk, 1966, 1967 and Geel, 1977), which led to the conclusion that the presence of water escape

structures in conglomeratic mass flow deposits may be used as an indication for a steep depositional slope.

Thanks are due to Professor L.M.J.U. van Straaten, Drs. D.J. Beets, Th.B. Roep and N. Pepping for useful discussions in the field and for reading the manuscript. Special thanks are due to Dr Th.B. Roep for his unending critical enthusiasm, which inspired me both in the field and at the university. I am further indebted to N.J.C. Kleverlaan for the many discussions in the field, Dr J.H. Baker for correcting the English, F.H. Kievits for the drafting, J.J. Wiersma for preparing the photographs and Mrs L.H. Gonggryp for the typing.

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Water escape structures

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LOWE,D.R. (1976) Subaqueous liquefied and fluidized flows and their deposits. Sedimentology, 23, 285-308. LOWE,D.R. & LOPICOLLO, R.D. (1974) The characteristics and origins of dish and pillar structures. J . sedim. Petrol. 44,484-501. MIDDLETON, G.V. & SOUTHARD, (1978) Mechanics of J.B. sediment movement. Soc. econ. Paleont Miner. Lecture notesjor short course no. 3, MOORE,D.J. (1961) Submarine slumps. J . sedim Petrol. 31, 343-357. POSTMA, . (1978) De geologie van het bekken van Almeria. G Int, Rep. Unic. Amsterdam, 86 pp. POSTMA, (1 979) Preliminary note on a significant sequence G. in conglomeratic flows of a mass transport dominated fandelta (Lower Pliocene, Almeria basin, SE Spain). Kon. Ned Akad. can Wet. serie B, 82, 465-471. POSTMA,G . (1981a) A mass-flow dominated fan-delta (Abrioja Formation, Pliocene, SE Spain). A depositional model. Abstract, 2nd Europr I.A.S. Congress, Bologna, 148151. POSTMA, . (1 98 1b) Water escape structures in conglomeratic G sediments of a shallow marine fan-delta (Abrioja Formation, Pliocene, Almeria basin, SE Spain). Abstract, 2nd Europe I . A . S . Congress, Bologna, 223-226. SEED, H.B. (1968) Landslides during earthquakes due to liquefaction. J . Soil Mech. Fnds Dic. Am. Soc. cic. Engrs, 94, SM5, 1053-1 122. SEED,H.B. & IDRISS, E.M. (1971) Simplified procedures for evaluating soil liquefaction potential. J . Soil Mech. Fnds Dic. Am. Soc. cic. Engrs, 97, SM9, 1249-1273. STRAATEN, L.M.J.U., Van (1964) Composition of shell beds formed in tidal flat environment in The Netherlands and in the bay of Arcachon (France). Geologie Mijnb. 18,209226. STAUFFER,P.H. (1967) Grain flow deposits and their implications. Santa Ynez Mountains, California. J . sedim. Petrol. 37,487-508. VOLK, H.R. (1966) Aggradational directions and hiofacies in the youngest postorogenic deposits of southeastern Spain. A contribution to the determination of the age of the east Mediterranean coast of Spain. Paleogeogr. Paleoclim. Puleoecol. 2, 3 13-33 I , VOLK, H.R. (1967) Zur geologie und .stratigraphic des Neogenbecken con Vera, Siidust Spanien. Thesis. University of Amsterdam. 164 pp. WENTWORTH, C.M. (Jr) (1967) Dish structure, a primary sedimentary structure in coarse turbidites (abstract). Bull. A m . Ass. Petrol. Geol. 51. 485.

(Munuscript receiced 18 December 1981; recision received 5 April 1982)