Large deposits of serpentinite in alpine-type orogenic areas have been formed by sedimentary processes ranging from the detrital accumulation of bedded serpentinite sandstone and shale to the emplacement of chaotic breccias (olistostromes) and gigantic slide blocks. Known occurrences of sedimentary serpentinite are listed, and eight deposits from the circum-Pacific, Caribbean, and Mediterranean areas are described in detail. Sedimentary serpentinites range in age from early Paleozoic to Quaternary, although most are Cretaceous or Tertiary. Most were deposited in eugeosynclinal environments, early in the geosynclinal cycle. Individual deposits range in thickness from a few centimeters to nearly 3 km, and several extend laterally for tens of kilometers. Graded bedding is common, and many deposits contain marine fossils.
Serpentinite is the dominant rock constituent, and clasts foreign to the alpine ultramafic assemblage are rare. Chemical analyses often detrital serpentinites show that these rocks contain slightly more silica and alumina than do nondetrital serpentinites, due to contamination by aluminosilicate minerals and quartz during deposition. This and nine other criteria are potentially useful in the recognition of sedimentary serpentinites.
Several features suggest that most sedimentary serpentinites were deposited very rapidly by submarine landslides, mudflows, or turbidity currents. The sources of this serpentinite debris are postulated to be upward-migrating serpentinite protrusions which penetrate the seafloor or Earth's surface upslope from eventual depositional sites.
Sedimentary serpentinites are much more abundant in alpine-type orogenic areas than is commonly thought, and many ultramafic masses presently regarded as igneous intrusions or tectonic protrusions may in fact be coeval with, instead of younger than, their enclosing sedimentary or metasedimentary rocks. In eugeosynclinal sequences such as the Franciscan Formation, some elongate bodies now regarded as serpentinite sills may be beds of ultramafic detritus whose sedimentary features have been masked by post-depositional shearing; isolated masses may be exotic slide blocks. A sedimentary origin can explain some of the most persistent and perplexing characteristics of many alpine serpentinites: their conformity with enclosing sedimentary rocks, their grossly planar shapes, and the absence of metamorphism along their contacts.