Wallace: Tying A Mineral Specimen To History

Silver specimen likely from a 5 metal deposit, is from an incredibly obscure locality that is tied to Scottish history. Courtesy/Terry Wallace

Los Alamos

Specimens are more than molecular structures: tying a specimen to history. When I observe a mineral specimen, I first view it through a science prism – how was it formed, what does the particular crystal structure (or lack of) mean in terms of chemistry and thermodynamics, and what must the geologic processes been that created the environment for the mineral formation?

Invariably, I then think about the mining or collecting, a uniquely human activity. Finally (or rather, in crescendo …) I think about the specimen in a historical context – why was the mineral mined or collected, and why was the mine or locality even in existence at some specific time.

The small silver specimen shown here is a perfect example – I can tell from the crystal structure it likely came from a 5 metal deposit, and the small amount of matrix suggests the silver was deposited in a quartz vein in an andesite/rhyolite volcanic pile. But the real Eureka moment is to look at the label and see this is from an incredibly obscure locality that is tied to Scottish history.

The Alva mine was discovered in 1715 not far from Sterling (and the present day statue of William Wallace) on the estate of Sir John Erskine. Erskine’s good fortune having silver discovered on his property occurred during a very tumultuous time in Scotland (and England).

Although trying to understand the intricacies of British monarchs is only slightly less opaque than quantum entanglement, the abbreviated context for 1715: In 1688 the House of Stuart ruled all of England, Scotland and Ireland and James II was king. James was Catholic and ostensibly his ouster was driven by a Protestant elite, and in fact James was the last Catholic British King.

This begat a 100 years of various attempts to restore the House of Stuart by the Jacobites (from the latin name for James). Sir John Erskine was a principal leader of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 – the very year that the Alva mine was discovered. The silver from this mine helped finance that uprising, although it was unsuccessful. A Mineralogic Record article by Stephen Moreton in 1996 details the history of intrigue of the mine – which is far larger than the actual amount of silver mined.

The second figure is a location map. For the most part the mine ceased to exist after 1770, and slowly disappeared from the from the social conscious until 1994 when the Royal Museum of Scotland reworked the ancient mine dump and recovered 30-40 specimens – this specimen is one of those.

The dumps are now exhausted, and nothing has been found in 25 years. But this small silver is a tactile connection to colorful history – something special for a modern mineral collector connected back to Scotland 8 generations ago. #huttonproject


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