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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 01 > Article

Rocks of Ages
by Tom Zoellner

In the rugged hills that surround Athens, Greece, a single peak yielded much of the stone that for nearly 2,500 years supplied some of history’s most famous sculptors and architects.

That Mt. Pentelikon was the source for such works as the Parthenon was well-known. But now, thanks to a UGA geology student, scholars are closer to determining exactly where on the mountain a given stone originated.

“The ability to identify the source of the marble assists archaeologists, art historians and museum curators in piecing together ancient trade routes, dating artifacts, giving insight into changing aesthetic values and determining modern forgeries,” said Scott Pike, who reported his findings at the 112th annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

In his doctoral dissertation, Pike divided Mt. Pentelikon into three basic marble units, which he called — in true classical style — I, II and III.

“Each quarry area has isotopically distinct areas,” he said. Using chemical analysis, scientists now can trace many statues and columns to one of these areas.

Pike said he hopes eventually to calibrate his database further, to a point where even specific quarries can be identified as the original home of a given piece of Grecian marble.

“We can increase our understanding of how the marble was quarried from the mountain and how it was transported into the city,” he said. “We may also be able to distinguish between those quarries that were privately owned and those that were public.”

The first large-scale project to use Pentelic marble was the “older” Parthenon. Destroyed in 480 B.C., it was a precursor to the famous temple of the same name that later sat on the same site.

Perhaps the most famous chiseled pieces of Pentelic marble are the Elgin Marbles — the original statues that decorated the later Parthenon — which were taken to England in 1806. They are now on display in the British Museum, despite demands from the Greek government for their repatriation.

The mining of Mt. Pentelikon didn’t end in antiquity. Marble quarrying continued up until the early 1970s, about the same time scientists developed ways to measure stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen as a method of distinguishing between types of marble.

Pike’s database, the first systematic characterization of the quarries, builds on this science and related techniques pioneered by UGA professor emeritus Norman Herz. The underlying assumption is that calcite — the primary mineral in marble — would crystallize in different chemical environments within each quarry region and thus reflect its own distinct isotopic ratio.

For more information, e-mail spike30030@yahoo.com.

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A view of Mount Pentelikon Quarry — the primary marble source for famous historical sculptors and architects — near Athens, Greece. Photo by Scott Pike