Geophysical Journal International. 152:515-565.
With the aim of treating the statistics of palaeomagnetic directions and intensities jointly and consistently, we represent the mean and the variance of palaeomagnetic vectors, at a particular site and of a particular polarity, by a probability density function in a Cartesian three-space of orthogonal magnetic-field components consisting of a single (unimodal) non-zero mean, spherically-symmetrical (isotropic) Gaussian function. For palaeomagnetic data of mixed polarities, we consider a bimodal distribution consisting of a pair of such symmetrical Gaussian functions, with equal, but opposite, means and equal variances. For both the Gaussian and bi-Gaussian distributions, and in the spherical three-space of intensity, inclination, and declination, we obtain analytical expressions for the marginal density functions, the cumulative distributions, and the expected values and variances for each spherical coordinate (including the angle with respect to the axis of symmetry of the distributions). The mathematical expressions for the intensity and off-axis angle are closed-form and especially manageable, with the intensity distribution being Rayleigh-Rician. In the limit of small relative vectorial dispersion, the Gaussian (bi-Gaussian) directional distribution approaches a Fisher (Bingham) distribution and the intensity distribution approaches a normal distribution. In the opposite limit of large relative vectorial dispersion, the directional distributions approach a spherically-uniform distribution and the intensity distribution approaches a Maxwell distribution. We quantify biases in estimating the properties of the vector field resulting from the use of simple arithmetic averages, such as estimates of the intensity or the inclination of the mean vector, or the variances of these quantities. With the statistical framework developed here and using the maximum-likelihood method, which gives unbiased estimates in the limit of large data numbers, we demonstrate how to formulate the inverse problem, and how to estimate the mean and variance of the magnetic vector field, even when the data consist of mixed combinations of directions and intensities. We examine palaeomagnetic secular-variation data from Hawaii and Reunion, and although these two sites are on almost opposite latitudes, we find significant differences in the mean vector and differences in the local vectorial variances, with the Hawaiian data being particularly anisotropic. These observations are inconsistent with a description of the mean field as being a simple geocentric axial dipole and with secular variation being statistically symmetrical with respect to reflection through the equatorial plane. Finally, our analysis of palaeomagnetic acquisition data from the 1960 Kilauea flow in Hawaii and the Holocene Xitle flow in Mexico, is consistent with the widely held suspicion that directional data are more accurate than intensity data.