Tucked-Away Marble Quarries Discovered as Source for Archaic Apollo
Portland, Ore.—The source of marble for a statue of Apollo on the Greek
island of Delos has been a mystery to art historians and archaeologists for
decades. The stone’s chemistry pointed geochemists to the southern end of
the nearby island of Naxos, but no one thought there were ancient marble
quarries there. A geoarchaeologist believes he found the source.
“We had actually been told that we were not going to find what we were
looking for,” says geoarchaeologist Scott Pike of Willamette University.
But after two field seasons traipsing across Mediterranean shrublands, Pike
believes he has found the source. He is
presenting his findings
on Monday, 11 October 2021 at the Geological Society of America’s GSA
Connects 2021 annual meeting in Portland, Ore.
The Greek Archaic period (approximately 800 to 480 B.C.E.) is known in part
for its “larger-than-life” kouros statues, which depicted young
men. Together, the massive Apollo kouros on Delos would stand around ten
meters (33 feet) high, although today it is broken into several parts. The
massive marble chunks are white and worn; at a glance, some of the pieces
hardly resemble parts of a human figure. But the statue has drawn
researchers all the same. Searching for its source was sparked in part by
an ambiguous inscription at its base, roughly translated as, “I am of the
same stone, statue and plinth,” with a later addition stating that the kouros was “from the Naxians, to Apollo,” according to Pike.
It was not clear whether the inscription referred to the statue’s
structure, being hewn from a single piece of marble, or the origin of its
stone. Pike sampled various parts from the statue — a hand, the upper and
lower torso, a bit of leg — and analyzed its carbon and oxygen isotopic
composition. That composition can be used to trace the marble source by
comparing it against other analyzed marbles, like finding a fingerprint
match in a database.
“The analyses showed the marble came from Naxos, but from a region where
there hasn’t been any evidence of ancient quarrying. We know that there are
two quarries in the northern part of the island, where there are still
large kouroi in place in the quarries. But we didn’t know of any
ancient quarries in the south,” says Pike.
Pike headed to the southern side of Naxos, despite locals assuring him his
efforts were in vain. He relied on local knowledge of other archaeological
sites and geologic maps to guide him as he “scoured the landscape” looking
for, essentially, outcrops of white marble and possible small pits.
Remnants of Archaic quarries bear little resemblance to the vast open-pit
mines humans create today and were difficult for Pike to find.
After a couple of weeks of searching, Pike began finding small bands of
white marble that were not marked on the geologic maps. Some were close to
archaeological sites, giving Pike some confidence that these small quarries
could be the source.
“Finding what we were looking for was exciting because being told several
times that you’re not going to find anything is discouraging, but we knew,”
Pike says. “The evidence pointed to the south. I felt the most Indiana
Jones I’ll ever be.”
Back in the lab, Pike analyzed his marble samples and found that two of the
newly-uncovered southern white marbles were good matches for the Apollo kouros at Delos. Knowing that these early marble quarries exist in
the south of the island will be helpful for tracing the source for other
ancient marble artifacts, such as older Bronze Age Cycladic figurines that
have puzzled geoarchaeologists. It also has implications for knowledge of
commerce at the time.
“Knowing now that there is a marble source on Naxos for these Bronze Age
statues and figurines will place the region more in the center of commerce,
trade and influence than had been previously understood,” Pike says.
Finding Apollo’s Marbles: Rediscovery of A White Marble Source in Southern
Monday, 11 October, 1:50–2:05 p.m.
Scott Pike, Willamette University, firstname.lastname@example.org (UTC-7
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The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society
with members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100
countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances
the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the
service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, USA, GSA
encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social
scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all
levels of earth science education.