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Resume of a Rockhound

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In 2004, I was in central Sumatra hiking the rolling hills on the east side of the Bukit Barisan mountain range. I was helping a team of villagers hunt for new agatized fossil coral deposits. We had been hiking since 5AM down a well travelled path thru secondary growth jungle with intermittent crop clearings. We came upon a small house and the guys decided to stop for lunch, cook up the standard bush meal of rice with a can of sardines in tomato sauce, and suck up a few kretek cigarettes. The mosquitoes and heat were ferocious. I had some snacks in my pack, so I told them to catch up and pushed on down the trail into the cool jungle rather than feed the bugs.


I walked another 4 or 5 hours, hacking the overgrowth reclaiming the trail with my Ontario knife & marking my direction at trail junctions with a stick. The trail was becoming more and more overgrown. Black gibbons and noisy brown monkeys were everywhere in the jungle canopy above. I stopped to wait for the crew and heard something moving in the bush ahead of me. I stood up to see a half naked local hunter coming thru the brush with a long black powder style rifle (hand made from water pipe).

He looked at me, a bit shocked as he pulled out a bag of tobacco and asked what I was doing there. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I might not speak Indonesian. Most people in the remote areas have never seen a foreigner. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a polished agate cut from fossil palm with beautiful black specks in a grey-green agate jelly from a river to the south.

The hunter points back to the gully he just climbed out of and says “disitu juga banyak”…. “there’s plenty over there”!!! A moment later without another word, just a puff of kretek smoke, he was off down the trail.

To ensure my team would not pass me by, I hacked a wide swath into the gully 150 yards to the left of the trail and began the hunt for stone. As the late afternoon light began to fade, I found rounded boulders, one after another poking thru the brown earth amidst the dense undergrowth and fallen trees.

It was nearly dark when my team finally arrived and it was time to make camp. In the morning we hacked down the brush clear to the creek below and identified more than 2 dozen fossil palms. For the most part they were shaped like pears, ranging in size from 15kg to 80kg. All the material being stump shaped, suggested some event occurred which only preserved organic materials buried in the ground. We found none of the upper portions of the palms.

I cracked open most of them to study the potential for lapidary use. Colors ranged from jet black to beige with patches of pinky reds. The blacks were hard dense opaque agate with jagged blue agate stringers and a speckled pattern representing the vascular bundles. (insert Photo #5 here) The palms with beige and pinky red zones were oxidized and some skins were rather punky. We focused on collecting full rounds with hard, well preserved skin intact. In general if the skin was hard, the entire palm would be solid dense agate to the core. Many exhibited narrow jagged veinlets of blue agate and a speckled pattern indicative of the original palm cell structure proving these were mature fossils and not just agate casts.

We spent days clearing the trail of fallen logs and hauled the palms out to the village with heavy, Chinese made push bikes, two palms at a time… Each load took a full 12 to 14 hour round trip. The guys were terrified of over-nighting in the bush for fear of tigers!

I shipped a small sample palm via DHL to an Oregon dealer hoping someone had a market for this find. He cut some beautiful slabs and asked the Indo team to ship several more tons.

The material has become popular for collector specimens, slabs and use in jewelry and beads. It differs from fossil palms found in Burma, China and many other fossil fields in that the vascular bundles are completely agatized and have no hollow pores or pits.

The following year, while villagers were collecting materials from the initial find, the search continued for fossil coral. Not far away from the first palm field, another area was identified in which huge palm stumps up to 800kg were unearthed. These were unique in that the outer region (parenchyma cells) exhibited a coarse structured, birds-eye pattern and some of the inner cells representing the vascular bundles were replaced by blue agate.



Rather than the crosscutting jagged agate veinlets seen in the smaller palms, the outer parenchyma cells were well defined by agate or encased in swirls of blue or white agate.

The remoteness of this find made the logistics of extraction slow, difficult and expensive. Wooden skids were used and the specimens were dragged by hand and floated on wood and bamboo rafts. They could only be moved during the rainy season. The leeches loved this and were well fed by the army of villagers dragging jumbo palms!



Over the course of a year, only 30 or so of the +300kg “jumbos” were brought to market. One memorable 590kg jumbo specimen, while being unloaded with block and tackle at our warehouse in West Java during the dark of night, broke the chain, fell 2 meters and tragically, split in half!

I have continued to visit these areas in search of new finds. Last year (four years after the last find), about 80km to the west of any previously known fossil field, some villagers found more fossil palms. This time, just 2 hours hike from a major road. These palms are different. Entire tree trunks have been found as well as the classic pear shaped stumps. The cortex colors range from whites and grays, to tans and golden yellows. Oxidized sulfides have painted patches in shades of red.

Patterns of the inner vascular bundles and outer parenchyma cells exhibit both speckled and birds-eye shapes. Jet black colors are uncommon. My favorite gray, frogs-egg pattern, grey jelly agate does occur in pockets or layers. We are currently excited about this find.



My lay-mans conclusion regarding the vastly different character of the 2 adjacent fields is that the black palms with jagged, zigzag quartz veining may have been closer to a volcanic center. Burial may have been in a hot, siliceous volcanic ash which resulted in oxidation and destruction of the upper tree parts and preservation of only the buried stump. The decomposition of the highly siliceous ash released abundant mobile SiO2 which rapidly fossilized the buried palms. I think the veinlets may have been the result of a volume change during the replacement process.

In the newest fossil palm field, we see upper sections of palm tree trunks preserved. I suggest the palms were laid down in a bog and preserved by a slower process. The resulting coloration involved a greater variety of minerals such as iron, manganese and others imparted from the surrounding country rock. The final fossilized product we see today has a greater variety of color and intensity of contrast.

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Local Indonesian village workshops cannot cut and polish the large museum quality slabs produced by America craftsmen. The Indonesian villagers cut and polish with small traditional tools but they have created some nice hand crafted beads and cabs.