The word “marble” derives from the Greek marmaros, “shining stone” (OED). This stem is also the basis for the English word “marmoreal” meaning “marble-like”.
Marble is a metamorphic rock resulting from regional or at times contact metamorphism of sedimentary carbonate rocks, either limestone or dolostone. This metamorphic process causes a complete recrystallization of the original rock into an interlocking mosaic of calcite and/or dolomite crystals. The temperatures and pressures necessary to form marble usually destroy any fossils and sedimentary textures present in the original rock.
Pure white marble is the result of metamorphism of very pure limestones. The characteristic swirls and veins of many colored marble varieties are usually due to various mineral impurities such as clay, silt, sand, iron oxides, or chert which were originally present as grains or layers in the limestone. Green coloration is often due to serpentine resulting from originally high magnesium limestone or dolostone with silica impurities. These various impurities have been mobilized and recrystallized by the intense pressure and heat of the metamorphism.
Marble is widely used for sculpture, as a building material, and in many other applications.
Places named after the stone include Marble Hill, Manhattan, New York and the town of Marble, Minnesota. The Elgin Marbles are marble sculptures taken from the Parthenon to Britain by the Earl of Elgin.
In the construction trade, the term “marble” is used for any massive, crystalline calcific rock (and some non-calcitic rocks) useful as building stone. For instance, Tennessee Marble is really a massive, highly fossiliferous gray to pink to maroon Ordovician dolostone, known as the Holston Formation by geologists.
Some historically important kinds of marble, named after the locations of their quarries, include:
White marbles, like Carrara, have been prized for sculpture since classical times. This preference has to do with the softness and relative isotropy and homogeneity, and a relative resistance to shattering. Also, the low index of refraction of calcite allows light to penetrate several millimeters into the stone before being scattered out, resulting in the characteristic “waxy” look which gives “life” to marble sculptures of the human body.
Faux marble or faux marbling is a wall painting technique that imitates the color patterns of real marble (not to be confused with paper marbling). Marble dust can be combined with cement or synthetic resins to make reconstituted or cultured marble.
As the favorite medium for Greek and Roman sculptors and architects, marble has become a cultural symbol of tradition and refined taste. Its greatly varied and colorful patterns make it a favorite decorative material, and are often imitated — e.g. in background patterns for computer displays.