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Geology Through Literature


Where classic literature is used to help explain geological concepts.


Geology Through Literature


       I am trying to read the 100 Hundred Books ever written (you can check that out HERE) and I have come across several instances where there is geology placed into the books. Sometimes it is a description of a place, sometimes it is to give a background of a town, but it always something that gets me thinking, "Hey, I wonder if that is true". So I check it out, do some research, and before long I have an assignment ready to be given out to a class. Here is the compilation of that work, piece by piece. As I come across a topic I will add to this page.


Available Work Packets -

The Travels of Marco Polo

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Our Town


Using The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo


While seeming to offer no geological significance, several works can still be used to describe the beauty available in the natural world. The Travels of Marco Polo provides a first person narrative of the travels of Marco Polo across Asia and India during the 12th century. It is this unique perspective that we gain insight into a land and culture that otherwise would be unknown to the outside world of today. Although Marco Polo generally commented on the cultural aspects of the people in which he interacted, he sometimes referred to the geological aspects of the lands and how the people interacted with that geology. It is in these parts that we will focus our attention.

Part 1 - Book 2: Chapter 23

Read Book 2: Chapter 23 (Of the kind of wine made in the province of Cathay - And of the stones used there for burning n the manner of charcoal). A snippet of the chapter is provided below:

"Throughout this province there is found a sort of black stone, which they dig out of the mountains, where it runs in veins. When lighted, it burns like charcoal, and retains the fire much better than wood; insomuch that it may be preserved during the night, and in the morning be found still burning. These stones do not flame, excepting a little when first lighted, but during their ignition give out a considerable heat."

A Breakdown:

    Based on the description of the rocks that Marco Polo had seen, it is clear that he is referring to coal. The province of Cathay is now known as northern China. Looking at the Chinese Coal map below, you can see that there are abundant coal mines across northwestern China, emphasizing the point that Marco Polo was referencing coal in his chapter. There is also evidence that the Chinese have been excavating coal for the past 3500 years. One of the big questions, though is if Marco Polo would have known about coal. In Europe, during Marco Polo's time and before, there were significant coal mines in the 2nd century AD in the UK region conducted by the Romans. However, following the exit of the Romans there were no significant uses of the coal until the 12th century AD, around the time of Marco Polo. And even then, it appears that most of the mined coal remained within the UK region. It wasn't until the 15th century that Britain started to trade coal with the rest of Europe. This makes it plausible that Marco Polo didn't know about the existence of coal.


China Coal

Some Possible Questions:

1. What rock is being described here?

2. Is the Province of Cathay known for this type of rock?

3. Is it reasonable to assume that Marco Polo wouldn't know about this type of rock in his day ~1250 to 1300 AD?


Part 2 - Book 2: Chapter 27


Read Book 2: Chapter 27 (Of the river named Pulisangan, and of the bridge over it).

"Over this river there is a very handsome bridge of stone, perhaps unequaled by another in the world. It's length is three hundred paces, and its width eight paces; so that ten men can, without inconvenience, ride abreast. It has twenty-four arches, supported by twenty-five piers erected in the water, all of serpentine stone, and built with great skill. On each side, and from one extremity to the other, there is a handsome parapet, formed of marble slabs and pillars arranged in a masterly style... Upon the upper level there is a massive and lofty column, resting upon a tortoise of marble, and having near its base a large figure of a lion, with a lion also on the top. Towards the slope of the bridge there is another handsome column or pillar, with its lion, at the distance of a pace and a half from the former; and all the spaces between one pillar and another, throughout the whole length of the bridge, are filled up with slabs of marble, curiously sculptured, and mortised into the next adjoining pillars, which are, in like manner, a pace and half asunder, and equally surmounted with lions, forming altogether a beautiful spectacle."

A Breakdown:

     The Lugou Qiao Bridge, or the Marco Polo Bridge as it is more commonly known as, still stands today. As described by Marco Polo it contains abundant marble lions statues placed throughout the length of the bridge.  Marco Polo's text states that the pillars are made of "serpentine stone", however I can find no mention of the serpentine stone and he may have mistaken a different variety of marble for serpentine. An interesting note though is that it is often referred that it is impossible to determine how many lions are on the bridge since the statues of the lions contain more lions carved between the feet of the lions.

Some Possible Questions:

1. What types rocks have been included in the bridge construction (i.e. sandstone, basalt, etc.)?

2. Is this bridge still around today?

3. What does that say about the materials used to build the bridge (good, bad, etc.) and was it a good idea to build it in this way?

4. What other name is this bridge also known as?


Part 3 - Book 3: Chapter 19


Read Book 3: Chapter 19 (Of the island of Zeilan). A snippet of the chapter is provided below:

"(The island of Zeilan [Ceylon]) is in circuit two thousand four hundred miles, but in ancient times it was still larger, its circumference then measuring full three thousand six hundred miles, according to what is found in the mariners' map of the world for this ocean. But the northern gales, which blow with prodigious violence, have in a manner corroded the mountains, so that they have in some parts fallen and sunk in the sea, and the island, from that cause, no longer retains its original size."

A Breakdown:

     Today, the island of Ceylon is known as Sri Lanka. Modern day measurements place the island at 833 miles in circumference and 25,330 square miles in area. This is significantly smaller than the measurements given by Marco Polo during his time, as well as the measurements given for the historical size of the island. The earlier measurements and map that Marco Polo was referring to was likely a map created by Ptolemy in 150 AD, almost 1,150 years earlier.


Ptolemy Map


There are questions though as to the ability of Ptolemy to actually measure the size of Sri Lanka though, since his map is mostly based off of estimates by sailors and navigators of the time. Marco Polo as well may have had some difficulty in measuring the size of the island, not possessing the same tools that we have today. However,  I personally question whether the conversion from prehistoric measurements to modern measurements are correct. There could have been confusion translating between Ptolemy and Marco Polo and then Marco Polo and today, giving another form of error.

 Looking at the different size estimates of the island we have:


Date (approx.)

Circum. (mi)



Area (sq mi)

Size Difference

Rate of erosion

(Sq mi/yr)









Marco Polo
















If these numbers are correct, then we are looking at rates of erosion of 500 to 600 square miles per year from 150 AD to the present. This is just an astronomical rate and completely unrealistic. The island may be shrinking due to erosion, however there is zero indication that is it shrinking at such an astronomical rate. The possible forces though could change the size of the island are erosion, as stated by Marco Polo, and sea level rise. Erosion alone could not alter the size of the island as dramatically as depicted but sea level rise could, just not over the time period depicted. It is know that historically, humans have been able to walk from India to Sri Lanka across a land bridge produced from drops in sea level. The appearance of this land bridge was last seen about 7,000 years ago though and is far before even Ptolemy's time. The most likely cause for the mysterious shrinking island is inaccuracies in measurements and possibly errors in measurement conversions.

Some Possible Questions:

1. What island is this known as today?

2. What percentage of the island area has eroded away (assuming a circular island with circumference given), according to this description?

3. The earlier map that Marco Polo was referring to is likely a map created by Ptolemy in 150 AD, almost 1,150 years earlier. Calculate out the number of square miles that the island has been shrinking per year (assume 1,140 years has passed).

4. Is this a reasonable rate of erosion?

5. Determine the modern circumference of the island and calculate out the rate of erosion from the last 710 years (Marco Polo's to to approximately modern times. You can use the length of the coastline to calculate a circular area or use the actual area).

6. How do the erosion rates compare?

7. Could Marco Polo's assumption that the island was eroding away be correct or could something else be the cause? Or was Marco Polo incorrect and the island is not shrinking?


Using The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


While seeming to offer no geological significance, several works can still be used to describe the beauty available in the natural world. One of those works is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde where in one portion of the book the title character becomes obsessed with gems and minerals. This leads to a rather lengthy discussion and listing of several varieties of gems, minerals, precious metals, and a host of other things (some of which I still am not sure what are).


Project Description



Read Chapter 11 (around the middle of the chapter, begins “On one occasion he took up the study of jewels” of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. There are approximately 35 different varieties of gems, minerals, and precious metals mentioned in the text. The minerals mentioned in the text are listed out on the provided sheet.  



(A website that might be of some use is:, but I recommend using Google and Yahoo! as a back-up as well since that website does not always give the correct answers). Use the chart below for questions 1, 2, and 3.

  1. Several of the gems and minerals have multiple colors listed in the text. Write down the colors mentioned on the chart under the Color Variations column.
  2. Several of the gems and minerals also list special properties in the text. Write down the special properties on the chart under the Special Properties column.
  3. Gem names are often specific colored varieties of certain minerals (i.e. purple quartz is called amethyst). List what the mineral name is for the open boxes on the chart under the Alias column. (The red boxes I am unable to determine so I will not expect anyone else to determine them either. See Bonus Question 1.)
  4. There are 4 different varieties of Quartz (or chalcedony, which is a variety of quartz) mentioned. What are those gems mentioned?
  5. According to Mohs Hardness Scale, which of the minerals/gems mentioned are on the scale? (Fill in the blanks below, multiple blanks means multiple answers)
    1. 1 – Talc
    2. 2 – ___________
    3. 3 – Calcite
    4. 4 – Fluorite
    5. 5 – Apatite
    6. 6 – ____________; ____________
    7. 7 – ____________; ____________; ____________; ____________;
    8. 8 – ____________;
    9. 9 – ____________; ____________;
    10. 10 – ____________;
  6. Looking at all the duplicates in the Alias column (i.e. garnet, quartz, etc.) what is the principle difference, other than color, between the different varieties of the same mineral?
  7. What is the difference between Balas Rubies and regular Rubies?
  8. Amethyst is mentioned that it “drove away the fumes of wine”. What did the ancient Greeks do with amethyst that helped corroborate this claim?
  9. Which of the three gems mentioned are not inorganically formed but biologically produced?

Bonus Questions (i.e. harder than normal):

  1. Fill in the dark red boxes for Aliases of the 3 unknown gems (aspilate, hydropicus, and meloceus).  And if you do know what these are let me know as well.
  2. What is the difference between Turquoise and Turquoise de la vieille roche?



Color Variations

Special Properties



Agate of India (Agate)
















Balas rubies






























Cinnamon Stones


































































































































Turquoise de la vieille roche





 Click below for the The Picture of Dorian Gray directions in pdf format.



Answers can be obtained by directly emailing me at


Using Our Town by Thorton Wilder


Geology is not only useful for a scientific purpose but it can also be used as a scene setter. That is how it is used in Our Town. To give the audience a sense of time and place the narrator of the story describes the history and location of the town including the geology and anthropology. The purpose of this project is to take his description and determine whether it is valid or not. Or could this just be a case of the author taking geological and anthropological words and imputing them into a story, whether they make sense or not?


Project Description


1. Read Our Town by Thorton Wilder.

2. Write down all of the important sentences and phrases that describe both the geology of the town and it’s location on a map. You will use this information along with some references from the internet to determine what is correct and what is made up.

3.Use that information to answer the following questions:



  1. What is the name of the town and the state that the story takes place in?
  2. Does this town actually exist?
  3. What town is closest to the coordinates given in the text? Is it the town named? Note: The coordinates are given in NAD27 which is an old system but the difference to the more recent NAD83 is only about 10 meters so it should not matter.
    1. Use the coordinates from the text on the website: You have to place a negative “-” in front of the longitude since it is in the Western Hemisphere, otherwise you will get a result in Russia.
  4. The play mentions four different types of rocks that the town lies on. List the rock types and their respective ages. Note: You do not have a given age.
  5. Place the rocks in the cross section below with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top. Assume the one rock layer without an age is the second youngest.





  1. Does the comment “I may say it’s some of the oldest land in the world.” make sense regarding the rock that they are speaking about? Why or why not? I recommend using a geologic time scale for this one.
  2. Using the geology map at (there is a larger pdf on the site) does the age of the granite make sense? Why or Why not?
  3. Using the above geology map what is the oldest age the granite could actually be. Hint: You should probably look up what rocks make up the Massabesic Gneiss Complex and the Rye Complex.
  4. Assuming the town is southwest of Manchester, is it possible that one of these rock units could be what was actually described?
  5. Which one would be most likely?
  6. Rearrange the rock units with the corrected age of the granite below. Assume the rock unit without an age is now the youngest.





  1. Is the basalt mentioned logical? You might want to check out Why or why not?
  2. The text mentions some fossils. Which of the four units could be the likely source of the fossils? There may be multiple correct answers.
  3. Anthropology – What is the name of the Amerindian tribe mentioned in the story that originally occupied the region?
  4. What is the range this tribe actually covered and does it cover the area given in the story?
  5. What state is mentioned where the marble building stone comes from?
  6. Can you get marble here?
  7. If you can get marble here what is a formation it could have come from? Keep in mind the transportation distances, closer to the town the better. There may be multiple correct answers.

    I recommend using this site: to find where they dig for the marble.

    And this site: to find the name of the formations.

Click below for the Our Town directions in pdf format.



Answers can be obtained by directly emailing me at


Using Walden by Henry David Thoreau


            Science is not a new invention. People have been performing science for many thousands of years. Often they build on research of those before them and sometimes they start from scratch. The purpose of this project is to use a scientific study from the 19th century to produce a current contour map of lake depth.  


The study being described is in Walden by Henry David Thoreau, written before 1854. The book is typically considered “philosophical” literature but in this case he performs the basis of science. He identified a problem, determined how to solve the problem, and then executed the research.


His Problem

Often people would describe the depth of Walden Pond as bottomless. He wished to prove them wrong and determine the actual depth.


His Method

To determine the actual depth of the lake he used the simple method of a rock and string.


His Solution

That’s where you come in.


Project Description

  1. Read the “The Pond in winter” chapter of Walden by Thoreau.
  2. Write down all important sentences and phrases that have to do with the depth and shape of the pond.
  3. Summarize these into only the important points (like the location and depth of the deepest point.
  4. Use one of the outlines of Walden Pond provided to start and outline the important features (deepest point, sand bars, etc.) in pencil.
  5. Make a contour depth map with 20ft contours. The shore of the lake will be your 0 contour (provided). Then erase all of the mistakes and non-important items on the map so you just have a finalized contour map left.


Walden Pond


Click below for the Walden directions in pfd format.



Answers can be obtained by directly emailing me at