Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

Author David B. Williams carves and shapes words into a thought provoking book on stone and its role in history, science and art. The book, Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology was published in 2009. It contains a wide variety of stories that revolve around the theme of building materials and our human history.

Paradoxides Trilobite 
Photo by © Sam Gon III
My perspective reading it was more from a paleontological view and I was not disappointed by Mr. Williams discussions of fossils and their ties to building materials.  The first chapter on brownstone relates to a story of finding dinosaur tracks which in 1800s America were interpreted as ancient bird prints.  When writing of the Boston granite, a discussion of the Paradoxides harlani trilobite appears and tying together the North American continent with Africa.

His discussion of fossils continues in a chapter on coquina clam (Donax variabilis) of Florida and its role in helping maintain a Spanish presence in North America.  Another chapter discusses the petrified wood in Colorado and its unique use in building a gas station.  The chapter entitled America's Building Stone - Indiana Limestone highlighted a stone whose fossils I most familiar.  The Salem/Bedford/Indiana Limestone contains the remains of many, many fossils.  The author gives a great description of Mississippian Period sea environment.  Here is an excerpt from page 117:
The microscope would have revealed a world population of protozoans inhabiting one-twentieth-of-an-inch-wide-shells, each made of a half dozen chambers coiled like a poorly made cinnamon roll.
Known as foraminiferas, they lived for a few months, died in the lagoon, and settled amid the billions of shells of their cohorts. Forams are an abundant fossil in some parts of the Salem, but because of their wee size they are rarely visible in the stone. When you see a Salem wall you are looking at a cemetery of epic proportions.
Endothyra baileyi Foraminifera
Salem Limestone
Washington County, Indiana 
Of course the author is referring to the Endothyra (aka Globoendothyra) baileyi foraminifera which can be found at Spergen Hill, Washington County, Indiana.  The chapter also reveals that Spergen limestone is found in eastern Colorado but that same layer is known as Salem in Kansas and Illinois.  So I guess that might be why that hill was given that name.

Progressive Carvings of a Block of Indiana Limestone
Indiana State Museum
Indianapolis, Indiana

David Williams mixes poetry into his text and its relation to stone whether citing a Oliver Windell Holmes poem or a chapter describing the poet Robinson Jeffers ties to Carmel granite.  Mr. Jeffers built a house and tower in Carmel, California from the granite he harvested there.  The process produced works of poetry and some impressive hand-built structures.

Tribute to Indiana Limestone Quarries
Indiana State Museum
Indianapolis, Indiana

Quarries play a big role in the book and there are many descriptions of them.  The fascinating story of the building of the Bunker Hill Monument from Quincy, Massachusetts granite is unveiled.  The author ties in the use of the "plug and feather method" of stone cutting and early railroad building to move slabs to launch the Boston granite quarries.

The chapter about Michelangelo's marble and all the problems Standard Oil had after using it for their Chicago office building was a lesson in using the right materials.  It was informative about where in Italy Carrara marble is quarried and how much of it is used today.

At the end of the book there is a glossary of geological terms, research notes/sources sectioned by chapter, and an index.  Inside the back of the jacket lists the book Web site plus color photos and back stories on the author blog at

Once finished reading, one will have a new perspective on the stone structures seen in everyday life. It inspired me to seek out buildings around Louisville, Kentucky whether it be the modern Humana building with its polished pink granite or Bedford Limestone trim on TARC's Union Station or the Gene Synder U.S. Courthouse.

Highly recommended and available at or the check for copy in a library near you.