Breccia (breach) is a rock composed of angular fragments of several minerals or rocks in a matrix, that is a cementing material, that may be similar or different in composition to the fragments. A breccia may have a variety of different origins, as indicated by the named types including sedimentary breccia, tectonic breccia, igneous breccia, impact breccia and hydrothermal breccia.
Breccias which are formed by injection of a slurry (be it as a hydrofracture breccia or, more usually, a volcanic or intrusive breccia) often show evidence of rounding of the clasts. With a sedimentary rock this may be called a conglomerate, except when the breccia is discordant with former lithology (clastic dike). For an intrusive breccia, erosion and transport in a watercourse cannot be invoked to explain rounding. Breccias of this type which are rounded are said to be milled, a process by which the breccia matrix grinds the larger clasts and rounds them off. This has been observed to have occurred in some hydrothermal breccias.
Autobrecciation is the process by which a rock's mechanism of formation causes it to become broken and to include its broken fragments within itself. This is properly explained in the section on lava (Volcanic breccias).
The other derivation of sedimentary breccia is as angular, poorly sorted, very immature fragments of rocks in a finer grained groundmass which are produced by mass wasting. These are, in essence, lithified colluvium. Thick sequences of sedimentary (colluvial) breccias are generally formed next to fault scarps in grabens.
In the field, it may at times be difficult to distinguish between a debris flow sedimentary breccia and a colluvial breccia, especially if one is working entirely from drilling information. Sedimentary breccias are an integral host rock for many SEDEX ore deposits.
A conglomerate by contrast is a sedimentary rock composed of rounded fragments or clasts of pre-existing rocks. Both breccias and conglomerates are composed of fragments averaging greater than 2 millimeters in size. The angular shape of the fragments indicate that the material has not been transported far from its source. Breccias indicate accumulation in a juvenile stream channel or accumulations because of gravity erosion. Talus slopes might become buried and the talus cemented in a similar manner.
Lavas may also pick up rock fragments, especially if flowing over unconsolidated rubble on the flanks of a volcano, and these form volcanic breccias, also called pillow breccias.
The volcanic breccia environment is transitional into the plutonic breccia environment in the volcanic conduits of explosive volcanoes, where lava tends to solidify and may be repeatedly shattered by ensuing eruptions. This is typical of volcanic caldera settings.
Intrusive rocks can become brecciated in appearance by multiple stages of intrusion, especially if fresh magma is intruded into partly consolidated or solidified magma. This may be seen in many granite intrusions where later aplite veins form a late-stage stockwork through earlier phases of the granite mass. When particularly intense, the rock may appear as a chaotic breccia.
Impact breccias are thought to be diagnostic of an impact event such as an asteroid or comet striking the Earth, and are usually found at impact craters. Impact breccia, a type of impactite, forms during the process of impact cratering when large meteorites or comets impact with the Earth or other rocky planets or asteroids. Breccia of this type may be present on or beneath the floor of the crater, in the rim, or in the ejecta expelled beyond the crater. Impact breccia may be identified by its occurrence in or around a known impact crater, and/or an association with other products of impact cratering such as shatter cones, impact glass, shocked minerals, and chemical and isotopic evidence of contamination with extraterrestrial material (e.g. iridium and osmium anomalies).
Breccia-hosted ore deposits are ubiquitous. The morphology of breccias associated with ore deposits varies from tabular sheeted veins and clastic dikes associated with overpressured sedimentary strata, to large-scale intrusive diatreme breccias, or even some synsedimentary diatremes formed solely by the overpressure of pore fluid within sedimentary basins. Hydrothermal breccias are usually formed by hydrofracturing of rocks by highly pressured hydrothermal fluids. They are typical of the epithermal ore environment and are intimately associated with intrusive-related ore deposits such as skarns, greisens and porphyry-related mineralisation. Epithermal deposits are mined for copper, silver and gold.
In the mesothermal regime, at much greater depths, over-pressured fluids under lithostatic pressure can be released during seismic activity associated with mountain building. The pressurised fluids ascend towards shallower crustal levels that are under lower hydrostatic pressure. On their journey, high-pressure fluids crack rock by hydrofracturing, forming an angular jigsaw breccia. Rounding of rock fragments less common in the mesothermal regime, as the formational event is brief. If boiling occurs, methane and hydrogen sulfide may be lost to the steam phase and ore may precipitate. Mesothermal deposits are often mined for gold.
It is most often used as an ornamental or facing material in walls and columns. A particularly striking example can be seen in the Pantheon in Rome, which features two gigantic columns of pavonazzetto, a breccia coming from Phrygia (in modern Turkey). Pavonazzetto obtains its name from its extremely colourful appearance, which is reminiscent of a peacock's feathers (pavone is "peacock" in Italian).