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Massachusetts' official sedimentary structure? Geologist wants state to recognize armored mud balls

The state of Massachusetts has a long list of official symbols. There's an official muffin, a state cat (and dog) and a state rock. But so far, not an official sedimentary structure. That could change.

Richard D. Little, an enthusiastic geologist, is seeking the designation for lithified armored mud balls found in locations around Franklin County. The Jurassic period rocks are significant, Little said, and rare.

At Unity Park, along the banks of the Connecticut River in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, Little recently used a slab of stone that contains several of the armored mud balls to rapture on about his beloved geologic wonders.

“This could come out to be the size of a basketball maybe,” Little said pointing to what looks like an embedded stone. A moment later, he dropped his estimate. “It's probably the size of a little golf ball.”

Geologist Richard D. Little stands by a boulder containing lithified armored mud balls, in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Little, who first documented mudballs in this area, is campaigning to make them the state's first official sedimentary structure.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Geologist Richard D. Little stands by a boulder containing lithified armored mud balls, in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Little, who first documented mudballs in this area, is campaigning to make them the state's first official sedimentary structure.

The slab came from the foundation of a bridge that once connected Turners Falls to the town of Gill. (The bridge was taken down in the mid 1940s.)

It was in 1969, in the bridge anchors left in the river, that Little first saw remnants of the Jurassic period sediments. He was new in town, he said, driving around, getting ready to teach his first class at Greenfield Community College.

“Of course, geologists, we always like to go over and look at the rocks," Little said. "These rocks were fairly obvious because they were reddish and they had round circular things kind of lined up in a row, and I'm thinking to myself, ‘What is that?’"

Armored mud balls are geologically important, Little said, and certainly deserving of becoming a state symbol in Massachusetts.

"They need recognition because they're a great educational tool, a peek into the geological past that is so rare," Little said.

They can even tell us something about how climate — back then — changed.

“There had to be a time of more rainfall, expanded lakes, of wetter climate when the lakes and the old valley here,” Little said, pointing toward the river, “the old rift valley, were higher.”

At some point in time, Little said, lake levels fell and the armored mud balls tumbled down streambeds, picking up pebbles along the way — that’s the armored part. Imagine, he said, who may have seen that mud ball rolling along.

“A dinosaur could have been on the riverside,” Little said. “They're just looking down and saying, ‘Oh, look at those rolling balls going down stream.’”

These armored mud balls are hard to find, Little said. They can't even exist in some locations. They need perfect conditions to form, and then not fall apart, to eventually become lithified.

“They have to be buried quickly, otherwise they dry and crumble,” Little said. "And then, of course, for the geological record, they have to be buried deep enough, turn to stone so they become a rock and then eventually uplifted, exposed and then found by someone.”

Armored mud balls dating back to the Jurassic period are rarely found intact. A western Massachusetts geologist, Richard D. Little, is campaigning to make armored mud balls a state symbol. He first started documenting them around Franklin County in 1969.
Indiana University
Armored mud balls dating back to the Jurassic period are rarely found intact. A western Massachusetts geologist, Richard D. Little, is campaigning to make armored mud balls a state symbol. He first started documenting them around Franklin County in 1969.

The mud balls' significance should qualify them to be the first official sedimentary structure, Little said, among the state's many symbols.

“Massachusetts has over 50 state symbols, all the way from the Morgan horse to the Boston cream doughnut and the corn muffin, and I just really think that armored mud balls rise to the top of that whole mix,” Little said.

In May 2022, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill that introduced the state to its first official dinosaur. It’s the relatively petite Podokesaurus Holyokensis, which means “swift-footed lizard of Holyoke.”

It was the dinosaur campaign, which happened during the pandemic, that gave Little the idea to do likewise for a state sedimentary structure.

Little started a petition; he made postcards, bumper stickers and other mud ball swag, and he's been trying to get the attention of state lawmakers including Massachusetts state Rep. Paul Mark, whose current district includes some of Franklin County.

"I have never heard of a sedimentary structure like this before in my life,” Mark said. "I was very pleasantly surprised when the professor brought it to my attention — and he took a lot of effort to make sure that he was differentiating it from being the official rock or anything like that.”

Could anything stop the armored mud balls of Franklin County from becoming the state's first sedimentary structure?

"Unless we find out that there's some kind of a sedimentary structure unique to Plymouth or unique to Salem that nobody has been talking about yet, I feel pretty confident that we're going to be in the lead for this recognition," Mark said.

The Massachusetts Legislature could see a bill early next year proposing the creation of an official sedimentary structure, according to Little.

Little was the first to document Franklin County's mudballs. Even prominent 19th century geologists like Edward Hitchcock missed them; they were so busy looking for dinosaur footprints, he said.

After so many decades, Little said he does not get tired of talking about the armored mudballs. But he acknowledged not everyone may be as interested as he is in the topic.

“I have a favorite saying,” Little said, “‘Geologists never get bored, but we may be boring.’”

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."