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4.3: Sedimentary Rocks

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Lesson Objectives

  • Describe how sedimentary rocks are formed.
  • Describe the properties of some common sedimentary rocks.
  • Relate some common uses of sedimentary rocks.


  • cemented
  • compacted
  • fossils


Layers of sand turned to rock are seen in the Navajo sandstone. The geologic feature is a slot canyon called Antelope Canyon.

Did you know that the White House, the official home and workplace of the President of the United States of America, is made out of the same material as the rock faces in Figure above? This material is a sedimentary rock called sandstone. Sandstone is very porous. Water can easily move through it. So the sandstone of the White House could have been water damaged. But during construction workers covered the sandstone in a mixture of salt, rice, and glue. This mixture protects the sandstone and is what gives the White House its distinct white color.


Most sedimentary rocks form from sediments. Sediments are small pieces of other rocks, like pebbles, sand, silt, and clay. Sedimentary rocks may include fossils. Fossils are materials left behind by once-living organisms. Fossils can be pieces of the organism, like bones. They can also be traces of the organism, like footprints.

Most often, sediments settle out of water (Figure below). For example, rivers carry lots of sediment. Where the water slows, it dumps these sediments along its banks, into lakes and the ocean. When sediments settle out of water, they form horizontal layers. A layer of sediment is deposited. Then the next layer is deposited on top of that layer. So each layer in a sedimentary rock is younger than the layer under it. It is older than the layer over it.

Cobbles, pebbles, and sands are the sediments that are seen on this beach.

Sediments are deposited in many different types of environments. Beaches and deserts collect large deposits of sand. Sediments also continuously wind up at the bottom of the ocean and in lakes, ponds, rivers, marshes, and swamps. Avalanches produce large piles of sediment. The environment where the sediments are deposited determines the type of sedimentary rock that can form.

Sedimentary Rock Formation

Sedimentary rocks form in two ways. Particles may be cemented together. Chemicals may precipitate.

Clastic Rocks

Over time, deposited sediments may harden into rock. First, the sediments are compacted. That is, they are squeezed together by the weight of sediments on top of them. Next, the sediments are cemented together. Minerals fill in the spaces between the loose sediment particles. These cementing minerals come from the water that moves through the sediments. These types of sedimentary rocks are called “clastic rocks.“ Clastic rocks are rock fragments that are compacted and cemented together.

Clastic sedimentary rocks are grouped by the size of the sediment they contain. Conglomerate and breccia are made of individual stones that have been cemented together. In conglomerate, the stones are rounded. In breccia, the stones are angular. Sandstone is made of sand-sized particles. Siltstone is made of smaller particles. Silt is smaller than sand but larger than clay. Shale has the smallest grain size. Shale is made mostly of clay-sized particles and hardened mud.

Chemical Sedimentary Rocks

Chemical sedimentary rocks form when crystals precipitate out from a liquid. The mineral halite, also called rock salt, forms this way. You can make halite! Leave a shallow dish of salt water out in the Sun. As the water evaporates, salt crystals form in the dish. There are other chemical sedimentary rocks, like gypsum.

Table below shows some common types of sedimentary rocks and the types of sediments that make them up.

Common Sedimentary Rocks
Picture Rock Name Type of Sedimentary Rock
Conglomerate Clastic
Breccia Clastic
Sandstone Clastic
Siltstone Clastic
Limestone Bioclastic
Coal Organic
Rock Salt Chemical precipitate

Lesson Summary

  • Most sedimentary rocks form from sediments. These sediments are deposited, forming layers.
  • The youngest layers are found on top, with older layers below.
  • Sediments must be compacted and cemented to make sedimentary rock.
  • Chemical sedimentary rocks are made of precipitated minerals.

Lesson Review Questions


1. What are three things that sedimentary rocks may be made of?

2. Describe the two processes necessary for sediments to harden into rock.

Apply Concepts

3. If you see a sedimentary rock outcrop and red layers of sand are on top of pale yellow layers of sand, what do you know for sure about the ages of the two layers?

Think Critically

4. What type of sedimentary rock is coal?

5. Why do you think sandstone allows water to move through it easily?

Points to Consider

  • If you were interested in learning about Earth's history, which type of rocks would give you the most information?
  • Could a younger layer of sedimentary rock ever be found under an older layer? How do you think this could happen?
  • Could a sedimentary rock form only by compaction from intense pressure?

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