The Upper Cretaceous chalks of southern England are a thick sequence of rhythmically bedded, bioturbated coccolith micrites, deposited in an outer shelf environment in water depths which varied between 50 and 200–300 m.
The products of sea floor cementation are widely represented in the sequence, and a series of stages of progressive lithification can be recognized. These began with a pause in sedimentation and the formation of an omission surface, followed by (a) growth of discrete nodules below the sediment-water interface to form a nodular chalk, erosion of which produced intraformational conglomerates. (b) Further growth and fusion of nodules into continuous or semicontinuous layers: incipient hardgrounds. (c) Scour, which exposed the layer as a true hardground. At this stage, the exposed lithified chalk bottom was subject to boring and encrustation by a variety of organisms, whilst calcium carbonate was frequently replaced by glauconite and phosphate to produce superficial mineralized zones. In many cases, the processes of sedimentation, cementation, exposure and mineralization were repeated several times, producing composite hardgrounds built up of a series of layers of cemented and mineralized chalk, indicating a long and complex diagenetic history.
Petrographic study of early cemented chalks indicates lithification was the result of the precipitation of small crystals on and between coccoliths and coccolith fragments. By analogy with known occurrences of early lithification in Recent deeper water carbonates, the cement is believed to have been either high magnesian calcite or aragonite, and more probably the former. The vast scale of operations involved in the cementation process precludes carbonate in expelled pore fluids as the source of cement, whilst quantities of aragonite incorporated in sediment are also inadequate. This, plus the observed association of horizons of early lithification with pauses in sedimentation associated with omission surfaces suggests seawater as a source of cementing materials.
Stratigraphic studies indicate that processes of early lithification leading to hardground formation proceeded to completion in intervals to be measured in tens or hundreds of years. Regional studies suggest that early lithification characterized relatively shallow water phases associated with regional regression over the whole of the area, whilst in detail, the distribution of mature mineralized hardground complexes is strongly correlated with sedimentary thinning and condensation over small areas and the buried flanks of massifs. Early cementation in more basinal areas is typically in the form of nodular developments and incipient hardgrounds, whilst day contents in excess of a few percent appear to have inhibited early lithification.
The striking rhythmicity of hardgrounds and nodular chalks is no more than a particular expression of the overall rhythmicity of chalk sequences. The stage of early lithification reached in any instance is dependent on sediment type, the time interval represented by the associated omission surface and the degree of associated scour and erosion (if any).
Chalk hardgrounds differ from most others described in the geological literature in their widespread distribution (individual hardgrounds may cover up to 1500 km2), the presence of striking glauconite and phosphate replacements of lithified carbonate matrices, their frequently sparse epifaunas, and boring infaunas dominated by clionid sponges. These differences reflect the deeper water shelf setting of the chalk, and the more open marine, oceanic circulatory system, both strikingly different from the setting of other, shallower water hardgrounds.
Litho- and biostratigraphic variation in the chalk sequences of the area studied are summarized in an appendix.