The lithology of a rock unit is a description of its physical characteristics visible at outcrop, in hand or core samples, or with low magnification microscopy. Physical characteristics include colour, texture, grain size, and composition. Lithology may refer to either a detailed description of these characteristics, or a summary of the gross physical character of a rock. Examples of lithologies in the second sense include sandstone, slate, basalt, or limestone.
Lithology is the basis of subdividing rock sequences into individual lithostratigraphic units for the purposes of mapping and correlation between areas. In certain applications, such as site investigations, lithology is described using a standard terminology such as in the European geotechnical standard Eurocode 7.
Rocks often contain small-scale structures (smaller than the scale of an individual outcrop). In sedimentary rocks this may include sole markings, ripple marks, mudcracks and cross-bedding. These are recorded as they are generally characteristic of a particular depositional environment and may provide information on paleocurrent directions. In metamorphic rocks associated with the deeper levels of fault zones, small scale structures such as asymmetric boudins and microfolds are used to determine the sense of displacement across the zone. In igneous rocks, small-scale structures are mostly observed in lavas such as pahoehoe versus ʻAʻā basaltic flows, and pillows showing eruption within a body of water or beneath ice.
Unconsolidated surficial materials may also be given a lithology. This is defined by grain size and composition, and is often attached to an interpretation of how the unit formed. Surficial lithologies can be given to lacustrine, coastal, fluvial, aeolian, glacial, and recent volcanic deposits, among others. Examples of surficial lithology classifications used by the lacustrine, coastal, fluvial, aeolian, glacial, and recent volcanic deposits, among others. Examples of surficial lithology classifications used by the US Geological Survey are, "Glacial Till, Loamy", "Saline Lake Sediment", and "Eolian Sediment, Coarse-Textured (Sand Dunes)".