Detrital sand grains are surrounded by thin bassanite coatings in the upper part of a coarse-crystalline gypsum crust from the Algerian Sahara. The bassanite developed by topotactic replacement of the surrounding gypsum in the absence of a liquid phase. Heating experiments using a gypsum crystal with sand inclusions produced similar patterns and textures. In one experiment, bassanite developed around quartz and carbonate grains but not along the sides of the heated gypsum crystal. This is the result of differences in heat capacity between gypsum, quartz and calcite. Bassanite formation in the crust from Algeria was not controlled by differences in thermal properties. Instead, the bassanite apparently formed under conditions of thermal equilibrium. The occurrence of bassanite as circumgranular coatings in the crust is interpreted as being related to the availability of submicroscopic space along the contact between the gypsum cement and the enclosed sand grains. The presence of coatings of this type, or derived relict features, is a potential criterion for the recognition of palaeosurfaces.