Morocco // The southern oases routes //

Precious stones? Buying rocks and fossils in the south

Throughout the south, boys bound into the paths of oncoming cars to offer crystalline mementoes of Morocco, and rocks and fossils are staples of most tourist shops across the region. But before you part with your hard-earned dirhams, it’s worth knowing what to look out for: tennis-ball-sized crystals in a hollow geode can often cost more on the Moroccan hard-shoulder than they would in Britain or the US, while brilliant orange and red geodes and slices of rock crystal (quartz) look attractive but are unknown to natural science, as are the quartz geodes given an iridescent metal coating by vendors.

Attractive spirals of ammonites (from Carboniferous to Jurassic) are common in the limestone areas of Britain, but in Morocco they can be bought sliced and polished as well as “raw”. Do not rely on the names you’re given by the shopkeeper – look at the centre of the spiral of the ammonite and at the ridge around its shell to check how far natural features have been “enhanced” by a chisel.

Slightly older than ammonites, trilobites often appear in shops as identical beige-coloured fossils on grey slate. In nature, they are rarely so perfect – beware plaster casts. The early trilobite Paradoxides is about the size of a hand, with long whisker-like spines. A deep-sea inhabitant, it is often found looking rather squashed sideways, where the silts on which it lived have been sheared by pressure. The Calymene and Phacops types of trilobites are about 200 million years younger than Paradoxides, and measure about two inches long, with a crab-like outer skeleton. The half-rounded shield-like skull, often found separated from the exo-skeleton, can appear in a shop with the rest of the skeleton carved around it as a tribute to modern Moroccan craftsmanship.

In the black limestone regions near Erfoud, the white crystalline shapes of nautilus and orthoceras are cross-sectioned and polished to emphasize their internal structure before being formed into ashtrays and even coffee tables (see Manar Marbre), a striking souvenir that can of course be transported for you at a cost – though they never quite seem to look so good back home.

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