Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Calcite, Marble, and Limestone

Teacher's Story

Calc spar, or calcium carbonate, is a mineral and is the material of which marble, limestone and chalk are made. The faces of the calcite crystal are always arranged in groups of three or multiples of three—a three-sided pyramid or two pyramids joined base to base. The pyramids may be obtuse or acute. When acute and formed of three pairs of faces, the crystals are called dog-tooth spar. The crystals appear in a great variety of forms, but they all have the common quality of splitting readily in three directions, the fragments resembling cubes which are oblique instead of rectangular. When these cleaved, or split pieces, are transparent, they are called Iceland spar. When an object is viewed through Iceland spar it least one-quarter inch thick, it appears double. The calcite crystal is often transparent with a slight yellowish tinge, but it also shows other colors; and it has a slightly cloudy or slightly pearly or almost glassy luster like feldspar. It is easily scratched with a knife and will not scratch glass. If a drop of strong vinegar or weak hydrochloric acid falls upon it, it will effervesce.


Forms of calcite crystals.

Limestone—so called because it is burned to make quicklime—was formed on the bottoms of oceans; its substance came chiefly from the skeletons of corals and the shells of other sea creatures, since sea-shells and coral stems are pure calcium carbonate in composition. In the water, the shells and corals were broken down, and then deposited in layers on the bottom of the sea. So wherever we find limestone, we know that there was once the bottom of a great sea. Such layers of limestone are now being deposited off the shores of Florida, where corals grow in great abundance. Limestone is used extensively for building purposes, and in most climates is very durable. The great pyramids of Egypt are of limestone. It is not a good material for making roads, since it is so soft that it wears out readily, making a fine easily-blown dust. It is slowly dissolved in water, especially if the water be acid; thus, in limestone regions, there are caves where the water has dissolved out the rock; and attached to their roofs and piled upon their floors may be large icicle-shaped stalactites and stalagmites, which were made by the lime-bearing water dripping down and evaporating, leaving its burden in crystals behind it. When the roof of a cave falls in, the cavity thus made is called a sink hole and is often dangerous. The famous Natural Bridge in Virginia is all that is left of what was once the roof of such a cavern. The water in limestone regions is always hard, because of the lime which it holds in solution; and in such regions the streams usually have no silt, but have clean bottoms; moreover, the springs are likely to become contaminated because the water has run through long caves instead of filtering through sand.

Chalk is similar in origin to limestone; it is made up of the shells of minute sea creatures, so small that we can only see them with the aid of a microscope. Try and think how many years it must have required for the shells of such tiny beings to build up the beds which make the great chalk cliffs of England!

Marble is formed inside of the earth from limestone, under the influence of heat and pressure; it differs from limestone chiefly in that the grains are of crystalline structure, and are larger; it is usually white or gray in color, and sometimes is found in differing colors. At Cadiz in California, marble is found showing twenty or more quite different colors. The most famous marbles are the Carrara of Italy, the Parian from the Island of Paros, and the Pentelican from the mountain of that name near Athens. The reason why these marbles are so famous is that in ancient times sculptors carved beautiful statues from them, and the architects used them for building magnificent temples. The principal marble deposits in the United States are in Vermont, Georgia, Tennessee and California. Marble deteriorates when it is exposed to air which is filled with smoke and gases. It is also used to make lime. When either marble or limestone is heated very hot, it separates into two parts, one of which is lime, and the other carbonic acid gas—the same that is used for charging soda-water fountains.


Calcite, Marble, and Limestone

Leading thought—Calcite or calc spar is formed more than half of lime. The best known forms of its crystals are cubelike, but instead of having twelve right-angled edges, the sides are lozenge-shaped, and are set together with six obtuse angles and six acute. Dog-tooth spar is one form of calcite crystal. Limestone is a solid form of calcite. Marble is granular limestone which shows the broken crystals of calcite. Chalk is very fine, pulverized calcite.

Method—Specimens of dog-tooth spar, limestone, marble, shells of oysters or other sea creatures and coral should be provided for this lesson; also a bottle of dilute hydrochloric acid, and a piece of glass tubing about six inches long with which to drop the acid on the stones. Some strong vinegar will do instead of the acid.


1. What is the form of the calcite crystal? What is the luster of the crystal? Is it the same as the inside of sea-shells? Will calcite scratch glass? Can you scratch it with a knife? What happens to calcite if you put a drop of weak hydrochloric acid upon it?

2. Is marble made up of crystals? Examine it with a lens to see. What is its color? Have you seen marble of other colors than white? Do you know the reason why marble is sometimes clouded and streaked?

3. Put a drop of weak hydrochloric acid on the marble. What happens?

4. What are the uses of marble? What have you ever seen made from marble? Why is it used for sculpture? What famous statues have you seen which were made of marble? Name some of the famous ancient marble buildings.

5. Test a piece of limestone for hardness. Can you scratch it with a knife? Is it as soft as marble? Put on it a drop of acid. Does it effervesce? If there are any fossils in your piece of limestone, test them with acid and see if they will effervesce. Any other mineral that you have which will effervesce when touched with acid, is probably some form of calcite.

6. Are there any buildings in your town made of limestone? How do you know the stone is limestone? Where was it obtained? Is it affected by the weather?

7. Is limestone a good material for making or mending roads? Give a reason.

8. Why is water in limestone regions hard? Why are limestone regions likely to have caves within the rocks? How are stalactites and stalagmites formed in caves? What are sink holes? How are they formed? In what county of your state is limestone found?

9. How is the lime which is used for plastering houses made?

10. Write a theme on how the chalk rocks are made.

11. Test a shell with acid; test a piece of coral with acid. How does it happen that these, which were once a part of living creatures, are now limestone? Of what are our own bones made?

"A great chapter in the history of the world is written in the chalk. Few passages in the history of man can be supported by such an overwhelming mass of direct and indirect evidence as that which testifies to the truth of the fragment of the history of the globe, which I hope to enable you to read, with your own eyes, to-night. Let me add, that few chapters of human history have a more profound significance for ourselves. I weigh my words well when I assert, that the man who should know the true history of the bit of chalk which every carpenter carries about in his breeches-pocket, though ignorant of all other history, is likely, if he will think his knowledge out to its ultimate results, to have a truer, and therefore a better, conception of this wonderful universe, and of man's relation to it, than the most learned student who is deep-read in the records of humanity and ignorant of those of Nature."

"During the chalk period, or 'cretaceous epoch,' not one of the present great physical features of the globe was in existence. Our great mountain ranges, Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, Andes, have all been upheaved since the chalk was deposited, and the cretaceous sea flowed over the sites of Sinai and Ararat. All this is certain, because rocks of cretaceous or still later date, have shared in the elevatory movements which give rise to these mountain chains; and may be found perched up, in some cases, many thousand feet high upon their flanks."

Thomas Huxley.

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