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by Galina GUBKO, Cand. Sc. (Tech.), Deputy Director, Ilmen State Natural Preserve
The fame of this remote corner of Russia has spread far and wide across its geographical and administrative confines. This spot of rare natural beauty are the Ilmen Mountains in the Southern Urals, near the town of Miass. Visitors have always been moved and impressed with its remarkable landscapes, its soft hues and outlines, and by its very special charm.
The Ilmen Mountains - is the southern extremity of Ural's eastern-most low submeridional ridge of about 150 km. It includes the Vishnevye, Potaniny and Sobachyi mountains to the east of which there is a hilly plain with plenty of lakes across. Stretching westwards is the broad, and gold-bearing, valley of the Miass River, passing into the Soimonovskaya Valley near the town of Karabash. Towering behind are the numerous ridges of the Central Urals. The territory consists of volcanic-sedimentary rocks. After a visit to this place in 1829, Berlin University Professor and Foreign Member of the St. Petersburg Academy, Gustave Rose wrote about vast numbers of different minerals amassed within this relatively small space; its rather low mountains and ridges, covered with woods, come as a kind of a natural museum where one can see some of the most valuable minerals amassed by nature itself.
The geological history of the Ilmen Mountains surprise one with their length, scale and complexity. The enthusiastic specialists and common travelers could not restrain their emotions, calling the place a "mineralogical paradise", "Mecca of minerals of the world", "natural museum of mineral riches" and "mineralogical standard". There is not one textbook, popular book or guide on this general subject without some mention of this region. The place is practically the only spot in the world where, as a whim of nature, an area of some several hundreds of square kilometers boasts of practically a complete "menu" of rocks known to geologists and a dazzling number of diverse minerals. Identified there by this time have been 268 mineral types and 94 varieties thereof. And a total of 16 minerals
were discovered there for the first time. The history of studies of the Ilmen mineral wealth is really breath-taking, often like a detective story in which people were looking for one things and found something quite different. Say, discovered minerals which then "faded away" for decades and did not always "reappear"; some experts used one and the same mineral for building some mutually exclusive theories.
More than two hundred years ago Cossak chieftan Prutov of the Chebarkul Fort searched the woods around Lake Ilmen for white mica. What he found instead was an unusual stone sparkling with "bits of golden flame". The find proved to be a topaz, or oriental topaz-one of the most expensive and fashionable gems of that time. The find triggered off a "gem rush", and within a short span of time they discovered in the Ilmen area beryl, aquamarine, amazonite, and phenacite. Mining of topazes proceeded apace. But by the start of the 19th century, the deposits were completely exhausted and God only knows what destiny lay in store for that region in the years to come. But the fame of the Urals mineral wealth finally reached Europe. That was a time when the era of the great geographical discoveries was succeeded by geological ones of no lesser importance. The quest for knowledge drove scholars on endless voyages round the world. They studied and described rocks and minerals, drew geological maps and stumbled upon hitherto unknown mineral sites. And the interesting feature of this "fever" consisted in the fact that, as often as not, research expeditions followed in the steps of mere adventurers, merchants and simply gem fans.
The 1820s marked the beginning of the "second birth" of the Ilmen. After a merchant from Lubec, Johannes Menge, the mountains were visited by Foreign Member of the St. Petersburg Academy, Alexander Gumboldt. He was accompanied by the aforesaid Prof. G. Rose. The mineralogical collections brought back from these expeditions produced a sensation among
European experts and were studied by leading authorities of that time, Prof. Menge discovered three minerals which had been unknown to science: ilmenite, eschynite and monazite. And just as many new entries were added to the Rose collection. These were cancrinite, chevkinite and samarskite, named in honor of statesmen who had promoted in every way the progress and prosperity of Russian mining.
Shortly after two more minerals were discovered in the Ilmen region. Prof. R. German and Prof. I. Auerbakh described one of them - chiolite, which means "snow stone" in Greek, and Acad. I. Koksharov the other one-ilmenorutile. And these were not sparkling gems like the ones found there before. The stones were black, black-brown, and reddish-brown and belonged to chemical compounds of the class of complex oxides, containing titanium, tantalum, niobium, rare earths and uranium. Back at that time minerals of that kind were of interest only to scientists and collectors. And a different fate lay in store for them in the future. Ilmenite, for example, turned out to be very widespread on our planet. In the latter half of the 20th century it became the main "source" of titanium-a metal of great importance for aircraft and space technology. Incidentally, it has also been discovered on the Moon.
Monazite, which much more rare, is now being used for the production of cerium phosphate and thorium, being their main source.
There is a regularity according to which the simpler is the chemical composition of a mineral, the easier one can extract its components, launch a cycle of their industrial production, the more are its chances to pass from a category of a scientific curiosity into the range of valuable ores. This is what happened to ilmenite and monazite, and samarskite, with its most complex chemical composition, had to play the role of a "guinea-pig" of science. It contains quite a lot - rare earths, uranium, tantalum, niobium, lead, manganese and iron - a "menu" which has
been constantly attracting the attention of scientists. Here are just two examples. In 1879 the French chemist Prof. Lecoq-de Boisbaurdran discovered a new chemical element in samarskite and called it samarium. And in the 20th century the Radium Expedition of the Russian Academy of Sciences mined 15 kg of samarskite in the Ilmen area with a purely scientific aim in mind-studies of radioactivity. Later on the Foreign Member of the St. Petersburg Academy and Nobel laureate, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, obtained from it a pure radioactive element-uranium.
The rest of the Urals minerals are still regarded as rare, although chiolite, for example, has also been found in Greenland.
The "golden age" of the Ilmen region was the second quarter of the 19th century. Following expeditions of prominent European scholars, Russian researchers also stepped up their own explorations. A stream of minerals poured onto the Russian and European markets with the most precious gems consumed by the museums of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin and other European cities. Within a span of only three decades- from 1825 to 1856-eight new minerals were discovered in Ilmen samples.
History has preserved the names of some of common miners who opened up and worked different deposits and also leading geologists, and academicians engaged in detailed studies of the geological structure of the Ilmen Mountains and the mineral wealth of the Urals. This list includes names like P. Barbot de Marni, J. Berzelius, F. Blum, I. Breithaupt, I. Redikortsev, etc. Thanks to their efforts the list of minerals in our mountains was brought up to some 50 mineral species and varieties. And experts became increasingly preoccupied with the "Ilmen riddle": why within such a limited territory and in such close contact there occur so different, and sometimes even "incompatible" rocks? But the 20th century brought with it the awareness that Mother Nature is not "inexhaustible" and that its riches will run out sooner or later. And if a flower, or a tree can be
replanted, mineral riches cannot be replenished. Precious stones, rare minerals and rocks of any kind, once extracted from the bowels of the Earth, will never be "reborn" there again.
Acting on a petition of a team of scientists led by Acad. V. Vernadsky, the Department of Mining issued a ban in 1912 on mining operations in the Ilmen Mountains by private individuals. A decree of the SOVNARKOM (Soviet of People's Commissars), issued on May 14, 1920 and signed by Vladimir Lenin, proclaimed sections of the Ilmen Mountains in the Southern Urals near Miass a "state mineralogical preserve" which could be used only for scientific and scientific- technical purposes. This status has been preserved to this day.
Thus it would appear that all the necessary conditions have been provided for solving the "Ilmen puzzle". There appeared a new team of brilliant scientists led by academicians A. Fersman and A. Zavaritsky who tried to explain from a different angle the unique geologo-mineralogical situation in that region, while rank-and-file workers of the preserve were preparing inventories of exploration workings, brought into order old pits and mines and were planning new ones, and making new collections. A book entitled "Minerals of the Ilmen Preserve", published in 1949, which is now a bibliographical rarity, provides detailed descriptions of more than 100 minerals and their varieties. In 1975 this list included 174 entries. The introduction of new methods of instrumental analysis simplified the "diagnostics" of minerals-of their structure and chemical composition. And, what is more, this could be done using small quantities of materials. It became possible to identify the mineralogical "belonging" of all sorts of crusts, and microinclusions, clarify the composition of "old" minerals and reassess them in keeping with modern classifications, etc.
Despite the fact that the total number of minerals discovered in the Ilmen Mountains continued to grow practically exponentially in the second half
of the 20th century, up until the 1980s not one new mineral was discovered which had been unknown to science before. It was in 1979 that one of our staff, Dr. Boris Chesnokov (Geol. & Miner.), stumbled upon one "new" mineral in a new mine. He called it "ushkovite" in honor of the prominent natural scientist Sergei Ushkov who had been studying local nature for years. A special commission for the assessment of newly found minerals and their names formally endorsed the find on April 7,1982.
Added shortly after to ushkovit were svyazhinit, matveevit and kaluginit - traditionally named in honor of prominent Urals geologists - N. Svyazhin, K. Matveev and A. Kalugin. And four more minerals were discovered over the next 7 years. The last one, named in honor of mineralogist V. Polyakov, was discovered by A. Bazhenov. The commission approved the discovery in the year 2000.
Nearly all of the latest finds were made in mines and pits of which there are about 400 on the territory of the preserve. And the number of workings is much greater, because, historically, one and the same number was often attached to two, three and even more of such sites. Our mines and pits were numbered for the first time by Mikhail Melnikov. His map, published in 1882, shows 87 of them. Since then this numeration has remained unchanged, and only enlarged, with every newly opened working getting its own number.
And one can end up by saying that despite the high degree of mineralogical "assessment" of the Ilmen Mountains, we are still as far from solving their "puzzle" as a hundred years ago. Academician A. Fersman put his finger on it by saying: "Who of the mineralogists does not dream of visiting this mineralogical "paradise", the only one in the world by the richness, diversity and peculiarity of its mineral wealth?"
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