Geological events such as uplift and subsidence may cause prolonged and repeated cycles of erosion and concentration, and where these processes have taken placer deposits may be enriched. Ancient river channels and certain river bench deposits are examples of gold-bearing gravels that have been subjected to a number of such events, followed by at least partial concealment by other deposits, including volcanic materials.
Residual placer deposits formed in the immediate vicinity of source rocks are usually not the most productive, although exceptions occur where veins supplying the gold were unusually rich. Reworking of gold-bearing materials by stream action leads to the concentrations necessary for exploitation. In desert areas deposits may result from sudden flooding and outwash of intermittent streams.
As material gradually washes off the slopes and into streams, it becomes sorted or stratified, and gold concentrates in so-called pay streaks with other heavy minerals, among which magnetite (black, heavy, and magnetic) is almost invariably present. The gold may not be entirely liberated from the original rock but may still have the white-to-gray vein quartz or other rock material attached to or enclosing it. As gold moves downstream, it is gradually freed from the accompanying rock and flattened by the incessant pounding of gravel. Eventually it will become flakes and tiny particles as the flattened pieces break up.
Some gold is not readily distinguishable by the normal qualities of orange-yellow to light yellow metallic color and high malleability, where it occurs in a combined form with another element, such as tellurium. Upon weathering, such gold may be coated with a crust, such as iron oxide, and have a rusty appearance. This "rusty gold," which resists amalgamation with mercury, may be overlooked or lost by careless handling in placer operations.
As mentioned before, the richest placers are not necessarily those occurring close to the source. Much depends on how the placer materials were reworked by natural forces. Streambed placers are the most important kind of deposit for the small-scale operator, but the gravel terraces and benches above the streams and the ancient river channels (often concealed by later deposits) are potential sources of gold. Other types of placers include those in outwash areas of streams where they enter other streams or lakes, those at the foot of mountainous areas or in regions where streams enter into broader valleys, or those along the ocean front where beach deposits may form by the sorting action of waves and tidal currents. In desert areas, placers may be present along arroyos or gulches, or in outwash fans or cones below narrow canyons.
Because gold is relatively heavy, it tends to be found close to bedrock, unless intercepted by layers of clay or compacted silts, and it often works its way into cracks in the bedrock itself. Where the surface of the bedrock is highly irregular, the distribution of gold will be spotty, but a natural rifflelike surface favors accumulation. Gold will collect at the head or foot of a stream bar or on curves of streams where the current is slowed or where the stream gradient is reduced. Pockets behind boulders or other obstructions and even moss-covered sections of banks can be places of deposition. Best results usually come from materials taken just above bedrock. The black sands that accumulate with gold are an excellent indicator of where to look.
It should be kept in mind that each year a certain amount of gold is washed down and redeposited during the spring runoffs, so it can be productive to rework some deposits periodically. This applies chiefly to the near-surface materials such as those deposited on the stream bars or in sharp depressions in the channels. The upstream ends of stream bars are particularly good places for such deposits. Where high water has washed across the surface by the shortest route, as across the inside of a bend, enrichment often occurs.
A rifflelike surface here will enhance the possibility of gold concentration. In prospecting areas with a history of mining, try to find places where mechanized mining had to stop because of an inability to follow and mine erratic portions of rich pay streaks without great dilution from nonpaying material. Smaller scale selective mining may still be practical here if a miner is diligent.