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Looking to the Earth for Answers

Scores of people visit the Parthenon temple in Greece each year, asking questions about its distinct architecture and historical significance. When Scott Pike sees the Parthenon, his question is filtered through the eyes of a geologist: Where exactly did all that marble come from and how did it get there?

An expert in tracing marble back to the quarry from which it came, Pike, assistant professor of environmental and earth science, finds such questions fascinating. It is known that the Parthenon's marble is Pentelic, meaning it came from quarries on Mount Pentelikon, located 11 miles outside Athens. But was it taken from quarries near the top of the mountain or the bottom? What was the mining strategy? The answers can reveal how the marble was managed and how it was worked before it arrived at the temple -- important facts in trying to answer one of the Parthenon's great mysteries: How did ancient people build such a beautiful and complex structure in only 15 years?

Pike hopes to uncover the secret by studying marble samples from the building. It's yet another of his many projects as an ancient Aegean marble expert. Determining the source of various marbles can reveal everything from the locations of ancient trade networks to quarry management practices.

Ever since he was a child growing up in Georgia, Pike has been interested in archaeology and studying other cultures. His family often traveled to other countries, and Pike would explore tunnels and areas underground rather than checking out the sights above.

In college, he discovered his geology interest rather by accident. He was on a summer archaeological dig in northern Israel when he noticed that a water source near the site had turned murky overnight. He was told the phenomenon likely was caused by a recent earthquake beneath nearby Mount Hermon. "At that moment, it clicked that there must be a connection between archaeology and geology," he says.

Pike came to Willamette three years ago and is the lone geologist on the environmental science staff. His love for travel has long influenced his work. In graduate school he received a nine-month Fulbright grant to go to Greece and map out different quarries on Mount Pentelikon -- he stayed in the country for four years.

He served for two years as acting director of the Wiener Laboratory of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The school is the principal resource in Greece for American scholars conducting advanced research on Greek language, literature, art, history, archaeology and philosophy. More than 160 North American colleges and universities are affiliated with the school; Pike helped Willamette become a member last year, and he serves on the school's managing committee.

He continues to maintain an Aegean marble database that includes data from various Aegean quarries. Each year, he analyzes new marble samples and compares them to the database to determine their origins. Pike's current projects include analyzing marbles from a Roman site in Israel and a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Turkey, as well as sourcing the marble from the Apollo Temple at Bassai and from a colossus statue on the famed island of Delos, both in Greece.

Despite all his study in this area, Pike says he doesn't want to be known only as the "marble guy." So every summer he makes a research jaunt to central Italy to work on a landscape restoration project in the Sangro Valley. He takes students with him through the Science Collaborative Research Program, a Willamette program that allows students to research alongside professors.

The Sangro Valley Project -- conducted by the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University and Oberlin College in cooperation with the Soprintendenza Archeologica dell'Abruzzo in Italy -- is examining the dynamic interactions between past cultures and their natural environments. By correlating the changes in farming strategies to those in the environment, researchers can determine more about the way of life of the Samnite people and their transition under Roman domination. "I've always been interested in how places have changed," Pike says. "It's interesting that people can grow up in a city and not know what was there before. I thought about this a lot growing up in Atlanta, knowing that at one time the entire city had been burned to the ground."

For one of his latest projects, Pike will examine the changes in a place much closer to home -- the Mill Creek Watershed that drains much of Salem and surrounding Marion County. He and three others -- politics Professor Joe Bowersox, Community Service Learning Director Khela Singer-Adams and Tokyo International University of America faculty member Tamara Smith --received a $25,000 grant to study the watershed.

The grant from the Institute for Water and Watersheds will allow them to study water quality and perform community-based ecological restoration. Pike's piece of the project will be to monitor stream quality throughout the watershed. He aims to develop lab modules to incorporate the research into his classes.

Thinking back to his desire to travel, Pike also is anxious to continue with his Parthenon project. He received permission to study marble samples not just from the Parthenon, but also from the Propylaia and Temple of Athena Nike, two neighboring Acropolis features. Architects working on a Parthenon refurbishing project are currently collecting those samples for him. "I know I have samples of the columns waiting for me," he says, a gleam of excitement in his eye. "I just need to go to Athens to pick them up."