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Thunder eggs and Inca Rose

Maya Jayapal | Updated on January 20, 2011 Published on January 20, 2011

Solid attraction: The sparkling red-rose rhodochrosite displayed at the RiceMuseum in Portland, Oregon.   -  Business Line

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It was a slightly wet, typical Portland day when my daughter, who knows and panders to my penchant for unusual museums/collections, took us to the Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals in a suburb of Portland in Oregon. I was fascinated as much by the exotic names of the rocks and minerals as by the exhibits themselves. The names roll off the tongue with sonorous drumbeats, and many are tongue twisters: rhodochrosite, obsidian, jasper, basalt, scalenohedron, zeoloits, morgante, azurite and so on.

And it all grew from one couple's collection of agates from the Oregon coast. Helen and Richard Rice, who started collecting on the beach in 1938, found, like many collectors, that their fund of rocks grew to such an extent that they needed a private space to exhibit them. So in 1952, they built this facility which served as both their home and museum. Long and low slung, this ranch-type house is an ideal place to showcase their collection. It is now managed by a Board of Directors and staffed by volunteers whose eyes light up in delight when they point out favourite or notable pieces.

Not just minerals

Apart from minerals which glow and dazzle, there is a collection of petrified wood of over 460 specimens from all over the world, including the 1,800 pound “talking log” which tells its story, meteorites, rock piles, a gigantic pumice stone, fluorescent minerals which have elements that allow them to glow in the dark, agates from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, fascinating fossils which include shark teeth, fossilised dung and baby dinosaur, and the thunder eggs.

Favourites

Of these my favourites were the rhodochrosites and the thunder eggs. Rhodochrosite is a crystal which has a beautiful sparkling red rose colour. The biggest and most famous is the Alma Rose from the Sweet Home Mine, Colorado, which is displayed in solitary splendour. The name comes from Romania, where it was supposedly first found and means “rose-coloured”. It is usually found in silver mines and the Incas thought it was the blood of former rulers which turned to stone and hence called it Inca Rose.

I have been fascinated by the thunder eggs since my daughter settled in Oregon almost twenty years ago. It has been designated as the Oregon State rock, although it is not really a rock, but a nodule or geode. According to legend, the thunder spirits which used to live on the high recesses of Mt Hood and Mt Jefferson fought with each other, amidst violent thunder and lightning. They would hurl these spherical rocks, which were stolen from thunder birds' nests, at each other. The stones are highly prized by collectors and lapidarists. Typically it has a russet-coloured outer shell that is knobbly and ribbed. The insides are often filled with agate, opal or jasper and if they have a fluorescent element, they glow. The museum has one of the largest opal-filled thunder egg in the world!

The agates are of various colours and reveal shapes and formations within that dazzle. One looked as if there was a baby inside, others looked as if they had landscapes waiting to get out. It is amazing what the imagination can do.

There is a gift shop filled with books and great gifts, including gemstone jewellery made with sunstone, a lovely light-filled stone which is the State gemstone.

Ideal for schools, the museum has activities such as hunting for thunder eggs, their cutting and panning for gold, besides exposing children to this fount of knowledge. Even as an adult I was fascinated and enlightened by this well-researched display of rocks and minerals.

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Published on January 20, 2011
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