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Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91 – 100


The dangers of taking mud for granted: Lessons from Lower Old Red
Sandstone dryland river systems of South Wales
V. Paul Wright a,b,⁎, Susan B. Marriott c
School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF10 3YE, United Kingdom
BG Group, 100 Thames Valley Park Drive, Reading RG6 1PT, United Kingdom
School of Geography and Environmental Management, University of the West of England, Bristol, BS16 1QY, United Kingdom


Mudrocks are a prominent feature of many ancient dryland successions but they are not always a product of the settling out
of suspension load. From studies of the late Silurian–early Devonian Old Red Sandstone mudrocks of South Wales it has been
shown that many were not overbank sediments deposited from suspension on floodplains, but were emplaced as sand- and silt-
sized aggregates transported as bed load and deposited in sinuous channels and as braid-bar complexes on multi-stage
floodplains in dryland river systems. Using the Old Red Sandstone examples criteria are provided for the recognition of similar
deposits in the sedimentary record. One important aspect of these mudrocks is that they can represent multiple recycling events
and can constitute condensed deposits that may be characteristic of closed alluvial basins with periodically limited sediment
© 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Mud aggregates; Dryland rivers; Old Red Sandstone; Vertisols

1. Introduction silt-grade aggregates of mud-sized particles, that through

later compaction, were restructured into a mudstone tex-
The formation of secondary mud-grade matrices, ture. Such mudstones are an important component of
through compaction of mud clasts or authigenic mineral some ancient dryland deposits. The aim of this paper is to
formation is well established in studies of siliciclastic provide criteria for recognition of such deposits in some
sediments. However, such effects are generally restricted continental clastic successions and to draw upon our
in terms of the proportion of mud added to the succes- experience of examples from the Siluro–Devonian Old
sion. In certain continental settings, mud-grade materials Red Sandstone of South Wales to highlight their impor-
were not deposited directly as suspension settle-out muds tance in assessing palaeoenvironments.
but were originally deposited as traction-load sand- and
2. Clay aggregates in Quaternary soils

Sand and silt-sized, clay-silt grade aggregates (“clay

⁎ Corresponding author. School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary pellets”) are a major feature of some modern fluvial
Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF10 3YE, United Kingdom. systems (Rust and Nanson, 1989; Maroulis and Nanson,
E-mail address: wrightvp@cardiff.ac.uk (V.P. Wright). 1996; Gibling et al., 1998). These examples come from
0037-0738/$ - see front matter © 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
92 V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100

the flood-dominated drylands of central Australia, but Maroulis and Nanson, 1996, their fig. 12). However,
similar pelleted sediments are known from non-dry- Rust and Nanson (1989) noted that these aggregates
land systems (e.g. the Red River, Manitoba, Canada, may be preserved if isolated in a framework of quartz
(Brooks, 2003)). They have also been recognized from grains that would not undergo much compaction and
clay and mud ‘grains’ held together by salts in aeolian also recognized macroscale bedforms that indicated
deposits (Rust and Nanson, 1989). In the case of central transport of the aggregates as bed load. Retallack (2005)
Australia the pellets are produced in floodplain soils provides a general discussion about the preservation of
with a high smectite content, typically associated with clay aggregates.
Vertisol-type soils (although see Retallack, 2005, Despite the poor preservation potential of such ag-
p.673). Such soils develop a fine, blocky to pelleted gregates in Holocene floodplain sediments, their former
(crumb) structure in the upper parts of their profiles presence has been recorded or inferred from a variety of
(McGarry, 1996; Mermut et al., 1996). Just a few wet- ancient deposits (Rust and Nanson, 1989; Ìkes, 1993;
ting and drying cycles are enough to form small aggre- Talbot et al., 1994; Gierlowski-Kordesch and Rust,
gates (Maroulis and Nanson, 1996), which have low 1994; Marriott and Wright, 1996; Gierlowski-Kordesch,
densities and are readily entrained during flood events. 1998; Tanner, 2000; Gierlowski-Kordesch and Gibling,
Following transport, these sand- and silt-grade aggre- 2002; Marriott and Wright, 2004; Müller et al., 2004;
gates are deposited and reworked as in-channel bed Marriott et al., 2004). Müller et al. (2004) have recorded
forms such as extensive braid bars. They also accumu- well-preserved mud aggregate pellets, both in Vertisol
late on lateral accretionary bars or benches associated profiles and as reworked material, from the Upper Tri-
with anastomosing rivers (Gibling et al., 1998). The assic dryland alluvial successions of the Lunde Forma-
integrity of the pellets is quickly lost even during shal- tion of the northern North Sea. Retallack (2005) has
low burial due to compaction (Rust and Nanson, 1989; questioned the interpretations of some of these

Fig. 1. Lower Old Red Sandstone outcrops in South Wales, UK. Localities from which examples are shown in Figs. 4–8, FWW – Freshwater West;
FWE – Freshwater East; LL – Llansteffan.
V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100 93

Table 1
Stratigraphy of the Lower Old Red Sandstone of south west Wales, UK

examples, favouring an origin for the aggregates for the indicating an irregular flow regime. In both cases, deposi-
Triassic examples documented by Talbot et al. (1994) tion of mud aggregates transported as bed load, followed
and Müller et al. (2004) not from Vertisols but from by compaction, could produce the same results.
reworked kandic soils (deeply weathered tropical soils); One consequence is that it is possible to create non-
this seems to ignore the fact that both examples come stratified mudrocks that, by virtue of lacking stratifica-
from arid dryland successions with prominent Vertisol tion, resemble pedogenically-destratified suspension
palaeosols, and in the case of the latter, the aggregates deposits. Müller et al. (2004) have named this effect
are found in situ in Vertisol profiles. “pseudo-pedodestratification”. In these cases, bed load
deposits could be mistaken for weakly developed palaeo-
3. Significance of mudrocks formed as aggregated sols. Such materials are pedoliths, that is redeposited soils
bed load deposits (Retallack, 2005), although it would be difficult to es-
tablish that all such aggregates were formed in soil pro-
The occurrence of tabular mud-grade sediment bodies files. Bed load aggregate deposits can be further affected
in alluvial successions is usually interpreted as the pro- by pedogenesis leading to sediment recycling (Marriott
duct of suspension load fallout in overbank (floodplain) and Wright, 1996), whereby aggregates are removed from
settings. Interbeds of mud-grade material in channel de- the upper horizons of soils, transported and deposited as
posits are commonly inferred to be slack water deposits bed load on a floodplain, to be incorporated into a new soil
94 V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100

profile. This type of recycling will be an especially Müller et al., 2004). The time-dependent stages of
significant process in systems starved of sediment such as development found in these units have been used to
the Channel Country of central Australia, where flood- develop simple estimates of sedimentation rates (Leeder,
plain aggradation rates are as low as 0.04 mm/year 1975; Wright and Marriott, 1996). The absence or weak
(Gibling et al., 1998). Sediment starvation also limits the development of these pedogenic features would nor-
input of coarser grade sediment, resulting in relatively thin mally be used to indicate relatively short residence times
packages of multi-cycle mudrocks. This means that the in the solum and hence high sedimentation rates. It
mudrock is not the product of a single phase of floodplain would be critical in such cases to establish whether the
aggradation but hides a long and complex history of lack of strongly developed features represents a short
recycling. It represents a type of condensed facies that period of soil development, or whether recycling has
may be characteristic of basin-fills of drylands with low occurred. The ability to recognize former aggregate
relief hinterlands, especially inland drainage basins where deposits would be essential for this purpose.
fine sediments are effectively trapped in the basin (e.g. the The availability of mud aggregates for entrainment
Channel Country cratonic basin, Australia (Gibling et al., and transport as bed load in alluvial systems may result
1998)) and continental rift settings (e.g. the Hartford in a high concentration of mud layers in fluvial channel
Basin, USA (Gierlowski-Kordesch and Gibling, 2002)). sandstones, and hence permeability baffles or barriers to
Fluvial systems with long-term aggradation rates as later fluid flow.
low as those of the Channel Country should produce
floodplain lithosomes with well-developed soils and 4. Lower Old Red Sandstone mudrocks
palaeosols. This is a consequence of the fact that the
degree of pedogenesis a unit of floodplain sediment The thick, Upper Silurian (Pridolian)–Lower Devonian
undergoes is the inverse of the deposition rate (Marriott (Emsian) Lower Old Red Sandstone successions of South
and Wright, 1993). However, the recycling processes Wales (Fig. 1. Table 1), which are up to 4.5 km thick, are
create unstable surfaces preventing major soil develop- composed mainly of alluvial sediments. These comprise of
ment. Many modern and ancient dryland successions 80% mudrocks, with relatively thin sandbodies and tuff
contain calcic and petrocalcic soils and palaeosols (cali- beds that act as regionally correlative markers (Allen and
che or calcrete) (e.g. Machette, 1985; Blodgett, 1988; Williams, 1982). Earlier studies had revealed not only the

Fig. 2. Two main associations of mudrocks in the Lower Old Red Sandstone that contain petrographic evidence of former mud aggregates.
V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100 95

presence of well-developed Vertisol palaeosols (Allen, occurs during dust storms in the dry season in the
1986), but also that reworking of the floodplains was a Channel Country (M. Gibling 2002, personal commu-
relatively common process, resulting in distinctive nication) and elsewhere in the Australian region (Hesse
intraformational (calcrete-clast) conglomerates (Allen and McTainsh, 2003) and may have been an important
and Williams, 1979; Marriott and Wright, 2004). Marriott process of redistribution in the Lower Old Red
and Wright (1993, in press) were able to document Sandstone. The importance of bed load transport of
detailed histories that indicate polyphase development of aggregates in the Siluro–Devonian mudrocks is testa-
floodplains in the dryland systems of the Old Red ment to the ability of the pellets to survive at least some
Sandstone. Using evidence from soils that had been transport, but might also reflect the likely absence of a
buried and later exhumed and reactivated, they demon- vegetative cover at this time favouring the presence of a
strated that, for selected stratigraphic units, the sequences readily erodible active surface soil layer (Marriott and
built up from multiple episodes of aggradation and Wright, in press).
erosion. With abundant Vertisol palaeosols and evidence, The types of associations of mudrocks deposited as
from the presence of intraformational conglomerates and aggregated sediments are summarized in Fig. 2.
reactivated soils, of periods of soil erosion, the discovery
of deposits composed largely of clay-silt aggregates was 5. Criteria for the recognition of former mud
in some ways to be expected (Marriott and Wright, 1996). aggregated deposits
The initial examples discovered represented sinuous
channels but subsequent studies (Marriott and Wright, Rust and Nanson (1989), Gierlowski-Kordesch
2004; Marriott et al., 2004) revealed that mudrocks (1998) and Gierlowski-Kordesch and Gibling (2002)
originating as aggregated sediments were also deposited have provided criteria by which mud aggregates may be
as sheet-like bodies, probably as braid-bar complexes recognized at the microscale and have given valuable
during major floods. Their studies showed that a signifi- examples from fluvial successions of Carboniferous,
cant proportion of the mudrock volume in the Lower Triassic and Jurassic age. In addition, it has been observed
Old Red Sandstone was likely to have been deposited as that aggregates may be preserved by early cementation,
bed load, mud aggregates. Additional reworking of particularly by calcite. Ripple forms in mudrocks contain-
floodplain surface sediments (i.e. pedogenic aggregates) ing early calcite cement were found in the Jurassic East

Fig. 3. Features suggesting the role of aggregates in mudrock deposition based on the Lower Old Red Sandstone, South Wales.
96 V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100

Formation, show clear associations between aggregates

and calcite crystallaria giving a boxwork texture.
Criteria for distinguishing well-preserved in situ
pedogenic aggregates from reworked ones that are
visible in cut cores have been presented by Müller et al.
(2004). Here we focus on criteria developed from stud-
ies of Old Red Sandstone units where the aggregates are
not clearly seen by the naked eye in the field. Con-
clusive evidence that the mudrocks were deposited as
aggregates comes from petrographic examination but
there are macroscopic criteria that aid in identifying
likely units for further investigation. None of the macro-
scopic criteria are by themselves diagnostic of former
mud aggregate deposition. These criteria (shown dia-
grammatically in Fig. 3) are:

• Lack of lamination—fine scale lamination, including

cross-lamination or fine grading is missing from
these mudrocks. This could be the result of com-
paction or pedogenic processes such as self-mulching
that is regarded as a significant process affecting
Vertisols, but in these mudrocks vertic features are
not ubiquitous (Fig. 4). Bioturbation could be an-
other possible explanation but although burrows are
Fig. 4. Massive red mudrock with minor pedogenic features from the common in many Old Red Sandstone mudrocks, they
Freshwater West Formation, Freshwater West (Fig. 1; Table 1). are usually found in units that also display some
Hammer for scale is 400 mm. remanent lamination (Marriott and Wright, 2004) and
are rarely seen in the mudrocks that provide petro-
graphic evidence of former aggregates.
Berlin and Shuttle Meadow Formations (Gierlowski- • Contacts—many mudrocks displaying petrographic
Kordesch and Rust, 1994; Gierlowski-Kordesch, 1998). evidence of former aggregates have erosive, even
Müller et al. (2004), from the Upper Triassic Lunde channelised contacts with underlying lithologies

Fig. 5. Channelised contact between highly pedified mudrock (lower part) and low-angle cross-bedded mudrock (also subsequently pedified) from
the Red Marls Group (correlated with Freshwater West Formation) Llansteffan (Fig. 1; Table 1). Walking stick for scale is 500 mm.
V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100 97

Fig. 6. Low-angled layers of mudrock and intraformational conglomerate containing calcrete clasts and mud matrix from the Red Marls Group
(correlated with Freshwater West Formation) Llansteffan (Fig. 1; Table 1).

(Fig. 5), suggesting that they may not have been other sediment types or grading. Whereas some larger
emplaced simply as suspension load sediments. This (gravel-grade) calcrete clasts are present within these
is not to imply that suspension load material could mudrocks, they are relatively uncommon. The general
not be deposited on an erosive surface, but that the restriction of larger clasts to the bases of the mudrocks
consistent occurrence of mudrocks above erosive is not characteristic of cohesive debris flow deposits
surfaces may point to the mudrock having been em- (debrites), but is more likely to have occurred if the
placed by currents with the hydraulic capacity to calcrete conglomerates represent the bases of deposits
erode fine-grained sediments. of sand-sized mud aggregates. Another common
• Associations—in some cases these mudrocks imme- association is that of structureless mudrocks overlying
diately overlie intraformational conglomerates com- truncated, pedified mudrocks displaying characteris-
posed of calcrete clasts (Fig. 6), with no evidence of tics of Vertisols. A discontinuous layer of calcrete

Fig. 7. Thin mudrock layers in heterolithic unit from the Moor Cliffs Formation, Freshwater East (Fig. 1; Table 1). Coarse sand and conglomerate
layers have mud matrix that is likely to have been formed from sand-sized mud aggregates.
98 V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100

clasts may be present at the contact but it is common to • Petrographic evidence—thin section examination
see these mudrocks, with petrographic evidence of reveals that far from exhibiting either fine lamination
aggregates, simply capping a sharply truncated or pedogenic microstructures, the mudrocks have a
Vertisol palaeosol. By analogy with modern Vertisols poorly-sorted, chaotic microstructure with sand-sized
it is likely that mud aggregates would have been grains of quartz, calcrete fragments, irregularly
released during the erosion of the upper parts of the shaped mm-sized mud clasts and sand-sized rounded
profile. A further common association is that of thin pellets of clay, clay-silt and silt. In some cases there is
(b 0.2 m) mudrock layers within inclined heterolithic a pedogenic overprint on these textures, such as
deposits (Fig. 7). The mudrocks are typically inter- calcite crystallaria, but most do not display such
bedded with calcrete-clast conglomerates or siliciclas- features. The pellets vary from being sharply defined
tic sandstones. Again these do not appear to be to grading into a finely mottled groundmass, within
deposits of waning flows but have sharp contacts with which it is difficult to impossible to see pellet out-
underlying coarser layers, and occur frequently near lines. Pellet forms are commonly more clearly seen in
the bases of lateral accretion units suggesting that they patches where calcrete clasts and quartz grains create
are more likely to have been emplaced as bed load. On a local framework. Rust and Nanson (1989) have also
petrographic examination, the former aggregated noted that in the floodplain sediments of the Channel
nature of these mudrocks is revealed. Country the aggregates are more likely to be pre-
• Stratification—some mudrocks display a range of served when isolated between other grains. Recently
stratification types (Ìkes, 1993; Marriott and Wright, Retallack (2005) has provided a classification of
1996). One common feature is the presence of con- pedolith types. In this classification reworked clayey
centrations of coarse sand- to fine gravel-sized calcrete soils are termed sepic pedoliths but many of the
clasts as isolated lenses or defining trough-sets within aggregates from the Old Red Sandstone do not show
metre-thick mudrocks. These units probably represent clear soil sepic or argillan microfabrics, and this
point bars of small sinuous channels (Marriott and probably reflects their origins from weakly devel-
Wright, 1996). The presence of these types of bed form oped upper soil horizons.
structures suggests that the mudrocks were not
emplaced from debris flows. Another characteristic of 6. Conclusions
these lenses or trough-sets (Fig. 8) is that the calcrete
clasts may be clast-supported or matrix-supported. The Mud-grade sediments transported as sand-sized
explanation for the latter is that the mud-grade matrix aggregates can be a significant sediment type in dryland
was deposited as sand-grade mud aggregates, later deposystems, particularly where the fine-grained sedi-
compacted back into a secondary mud matrix. ments are smectite-rich and wetting and drying cycles

Fig. 8. Mudrock overlying intraformational calcrete clast conglomerate lenses showing low-angle cross bedding from the Moor Cliffs Formation,
Freshwater East (Fig. 1; Table 1).
V.P. Wright, S.B. Marriott / Sedimentary Geology 195 (2007) 91–100 99

favour Vertisol formation and fine, granular-surface soil Gierlowski-Kordesch, E.H., Rust, B.R., 1994. The Jurassic East Berlin
structures. The growing number of examples of ancient Formation, Hartford Basin, Newark Supergroup (Connecticut and
Massachusetts): a saline lake-playa–alluvial plain system. In: Renaut,
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Acknowledgements Special Paper, vol. 203, pp. 1–21.
Maroulis, J.C., Nansossn, G.C., 1996. Bedload transport of aggregated
muddy alluvium from Cooper Creek, central Australia: a flume
The authors wish to thank Elizabeth Gierlowski- study. Sedimentology 43, 771–790.
Kordesch and Peter Friend for their helpful comments Marriott, S.B., Wright, V.P., 1993. Palaeosols as indicators of geomorphic
on an earlier draft of this paper. Paul Revell drew the stability in two Old Red Sandstone alluvial suites, South Wales.
diagrams. We thank the reviewers, Steve Driese and Journal of the Geological Society (London) 150, 1109–1120.
Marriott, S.B., Wright, V.P., 1996. Sediment recycling on Siluro–
Greg Retallack for their insightful comments. Fieldwork Devonian floodplains. Journal of the Geological Society (London)
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Built Environment, UWE, Bristol. Marriott, S.B., Wright, V.P., 2004. Mudrock deposition in an ancient
dryland system: Moor Cliffs Formation, Lower Old Red Sandstone
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