Tennessee Rocks and Minerals

Tennessee has more mineral resources than any other state east of the Mississippi, except North Carolina.

Limestone and dolomite, bituminous coal, lead, zinc, ball clay, sand and gravel, phosphate, petroleum, common clay and shale, barite, fluorite, marble, sandstone, copper, iron, gold, manganese, mica, celestite, bauxite, and bentonite are among the products that have been found, mined or quarried in the state of Tennessee.

East Tennessee rises in the Unaka, or Great Smoky Mountains, along the North Carolina border, an area of folded crystalline rocks, and extends across the valley of Tennessee, cut in sedimentary rocks, to the Cumberland Plateau. This plateau, bordered by steep escarpments, encloses a central basin running from northeast to southwest, where Nashville is located. The basin rises to the highlands on the west, cut by the lower Tennessee River, and then falls to a bluff along the Mississippi in a plateau which is part of the Gulf coastal plains. In Ancient times, sediments of sand and silt were deposited in West Tennessee, along the present course of the Tennessee River. The Coon Creek Formation is one of these, deposited as a sandy shoreline along the Mississippi embankment during the Cretaceous. Because this area was underwater, there are no land dinosaur bones found here.

Except for the narrow belt of the Appalachian Mountains in the east, Tennessee is formed mostly of sedimentary rocks.

The Cumberland Plateau, stretching across central Tennessee, and Cumberland Mountains are part of the great Appalachian Plateau extending from New York to Alabama. This is the bituminous coal area. Coal was found in small quantities during the 1840s and coal mining became a significant Tennessee industry after the end of the Civil War. The Cumberland Plateau is also home to an abundance of minerals such as agates, quartz, pyrite, sphalerite, celestite, fluorite and calcite. Many abandoned mines and quarries in the area offer great opportunities for rockhounding.

Tennessee is the leading producer of ball clay in the nation out of five producing states. Ball clay is used primarily in the manufacture of dinnerware, floor and wall tile, pottery, and sanitary ware.

In addition to coal, Tennessee has other fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, oil shale, and radioactive minerals, but not all are in deposits large enough or high-grade enough to recover. The first commercial oil well in the state was drilled in Overton County in 1866.

Iron ore was once mined in Tennessee. The iron ores were located in the valleys and mountains of East Tennessee and in Middle Tennessee. Because of low quality and inaccessibility of its deposits, Tennessee has nearly disappeared from the ranks of iron-producing states.

Lead is also found in the east and central Tennessee, commonly in limestones and dolomites, and usually in association with zinc.

Copper mining began in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Ducktown-Copperhill district, commonly known as the Copper Basin, of Polk County. The mineral was first discovered in the area in the 1840s. Ducktown, Tennessee, is home to the Burra-Burra Mine, a copper mine that operated for 60 years and removed over 15 million tons of copper ore.


Marble quarrying in Tennessee dates back to the late 1840s, when stone was dug for use in construction of the Washington Monument. About 10 years later, production began in the Knoxville area, with some of the stone used in construction of the state capitol building. Tennessee marble is famous for its high quality and the variety of coloration. It was widely used across the United States and in other countries, especially in the interiors of public buildings. Among the famous structures that feature Tennessee marble are the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City, the capitol building, the National Gallery of Art, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Tennessee is also known for freshwater pearls found in mussels in the Tennessee River and its tributaries. The Tennessee River Pearl was declared the state’s official gemstone in 1979.

Located in Carthage, the Elmwood Mine is renowned for its striking specimens of fluorite, sphalerite, and barite. Although not open to the public for collecting, the mine produces some of the most beautiful mineral specimens in the world.

The Gray Fossil Site is an early Pliocene collection of fossils dating between 4.5 and 4.9 million years old, located near the town of Gray in Washington County, Tennessee. The site was discovered during road construction on Tennessee State Route 75 by the Tennessee Department of Transportation in May 2000. Local officials decided to preserve the site for research and education and the site is now part of East Tennessee State University. The Gray Fossil Site & Museum was opened on the site in 2007.

Tennessee designated Agate as the official state rock in 2009. The best location in the state to find agates is Horse Mountain. Agate found here is known as Horse Mountain Agate. Another popular type of agate collected in Tennessee is Paint Rock Agate which has shades of red, orange, and yellow and often displays fortification banding. Paint Rock Agate is most commonly found in southern Tennessee near the Alabama border.

Before venturing out-do some research on where and what you can collect. Remember you must have permission to collect on private property.

See my page on Rockhounding Rules for general information on the rules of collecting rocks on various lands.