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Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Rose Witkowski
Marble, Loved by the Ancient Greeks and Romans
Throughout time marble has been used by mankind for many purposes such as
masonry used in the construction of houses, official buildings, and places of
worship, however marble can be seen most beautifully used in ancient sculptures.
What is Marble?
Marble is a metamorphic rock that is formed from limestone. Marble
basically consists of calcite dolomite, or a combination of the two carbonate
How Marble is Formed
Marble is formed when limestone goes through metamorphism where extreme heat and
pressure is applied to the limestone deep within the earthís crust. Within the
limestone are fossilized materials that get re-crystallized into the large,
coarse grains that make up marble. If there are impurities present during this
process the marble will develop different colors. Pure calcite marble is white,
if different minerals are added the marble will have different colors: hematite
gives the marble a reddish tone, limonite gives a yellow tone, and serpentine
gives it a green tone. The more of the mineral, the more concentrated the color
How Marble is Mined
In ancient Grecian times marble mining was a long process that was often
difficult, but in the Greeks eyes, well worth the effort. When a marble quarry
was found the quarrymen would use the natural fissures in the rock to their
advantage. First they would put iron wedges in the natural fissures and pound
them with hammers until the large marble block was released. They would then
carve out the rough shape to remove a portion of the weight and so it would be
lighter when it was being moved to the masonís worksite. Getting the marble out
of the quarry took a lot of muscle power along with the help of ropes, pulleys,
winches, levers, wooden beams, and rollers. The marble was then maneuvered onto
a heavy wooden cart that would have mules hooked up to it and it would begin the
slow road to the workplace.
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Often times when people think of ancient Greek and Roman marble statues and
sculptures, they think of the pure white marble. In truth the artists preferred
to use off white marble because it better showed the subtleties in the soft
molding of areas such as the muscles on a sculpture depicting an athlete.
Another misconception is that the finished product was just the plain marble,
most of the time the sculptures themselves would hire professional painters to
paint the artwork and the piece was not considered finished until it had been
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The Method of Sculpting Marble
Ancient sculptures basically used only a hammer and chisel to carve out the desired form. They would start out by getting the rough form and gradually they would chip away the stone with greater care until the basic form was completed.
The hammer and chisel, however, would leave the piece rough and unfinished no matter how carefully the marble was chipped away. The Greek or Roman sculpture would then use abrasion tools to get the marble to a smooth finish. The marble was smoothed by a stone called emery much in the same way we use sandpaper on wooden surfaces. Then the piece was then smoothed with a softer stone to give the surface a shiny appearance.
The Finished Form
Often times there were additional treatments to the marble sculpture when a
temporary sealing compound would be applied to the surface to increase the
As discussed before, most of the time the sculpted piece was not considered
finished until it had been painted. Although historians cannot know for certain,
there are some general guidelines that can be deduced. For one thing, if a
sculpture was to be placed on top of a building bright colors would be used. In
contrast, if the sculpture was to be placed where it could be viewed up close
more natural hues were chosen.
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Subject Matter: The Greeks
The earliest Greek sculptures were very small, only a few inches tall, and as soon as the Greeks began interacting with the Egyptians they began carving larger, more elaborate pieces. The early sculptures followed the Egyptian stiff form of a male figure facing forward, hands at his side, with one foot slightly in front of the other. This Egyptian form had not changed much in 2,000 years; the Greeks, however, took the basic form and ran with it. Within a couple hundred years the form had drastically changed from the stiff pose to a much more realistic position. This more realistic position that showed a body in motion is known as the contra pose.
matter among Greek art is mainly dominated by the figures of nude young men.
This is because they were thought to be the most beautiful and often times the
sculptures were made to be too perfect. These young men were often times
athletes who competed in sporting competitions such as the Olympics. On the
other hand, women are not really seen often in Greek art and when they are they
are usually fully clothed. Greek society was highly centered on the mythology
concerning the gods and this is clearly expressed in the amount of sculptures
depicting different gods and goddesses.
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The ancient Greeks took only about eight or nine years to complete the huge temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. The building of the Parthenon was the largest and most expensive project in that time in history and it was constructed almost entirely out of marble. Currently there is a reconstruction project of the Parthenon that has been going on for thirty years, cost over $90 million and is not set to be completed until 2020.
The amazing thing about this reconstruction project is that with the exception of some modern machinery the entire project is being carried out using the same kinds of tools used in the actual building of the Parthenon. Marble is even being mined from the same quarry used in the original construction of the Parthenon.
much of the original pieces of the Parthenon are missing either from looting and
the pieces are now in museums, or the pieces have just disappeared. For that
reason new marble must be used to replace the missing pieces and they are using
marble from the original quarry.
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Subject Matter: The Romans
In contrast to the Greeks, the Romans preferred a much more realistic portrayal
of the human form. The Romans learned everything they knew about stonework and
about carving statues from the Greeks and the main difference was that the
Romans used the hand drill more and they had more realism in the art. Romans
added a different style to their sculptures and an authority figure was often
showed with on hand raised and often on a horse.
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The Weathering of Marble
One of the most damaging weathering effects on marble has only come along with this modern era; acid rain. Acid rain is the infamous result of modern transportation and can cause the darkening of marble that is outdoors. Acid rain is formed when water absorbs one of two types of sulfurous compounds, SO2 or SO3, these two chemicals result from the burning of gasoline. Clouds contaminated with these compounds can rain down on the surface of marble sculptures and a chemical reaction can ensue. This reaction actually eats away some of the marble and permanently destroying the marble surface.
Natural weathering from the Mediterranean climate has also had its effect on the paints that once adorned the sculpted art; much of it is no longer there. Also when pieces were cleaned to be put on display in a museum the paint was washed away because most of the time the paint was made out of natural minerals and may have just looked like the piece was dirty.
© Rebecca Nemser
Marble is a fascinating material that has been put to many uses in the ancient world; from masonry to art it has been highly utilized. Most of use only think of the plain white marble used in ancient art, but think about how it was truly meant to be seen, full of bright colors and in all of its glory. Modern transportation has begun to permanently damage some of the finest examples of ancient art, but perhaps with awareness some of this art can be further preserved throughout time so that maybe 2,000 years from now it will still be around for mankind to marvel at.
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