Limestone is a common type of carbonate sedimentary rock. It is composed mostly of the minerals calcite and aragonite, which are different crystal forms of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Limestone forms when these minerals precipitate out of water containing dissolved calcium. This can take place through both biological and nonbiological processes, though biological processes have likely been more important for the last 540 million years. Limestone often contains fossils, and these provide scientists with information on ancient environments and on the evolution of life.
About 20% to 25% of sedimentary rock is carbonate rock, and most of this is limestone. The remaining carbonate rock is mostly dolomite, a closely related rock, which contains a high percentage of the mineral dolomite, CaMg(CO3)2. Magnesian limestone is an obsolete and poorly-defined term used variously for dolomite, for limestone containing significant dolomite (dolomitic limestone), or for any other limestone containing a significant percentage of magnesium. Most limestone was formed in shallow marine environments, such as continental shelves or platforms, though smaller amounts were formed in many other environments. Much dolomite is secondary dolomite, formed by chemical alteration of limestone. Limestone is exposed over large regions of the Earth’s surface, and because limestone is slightly soluble in rainwater, these exposures often are eroded to become karst landscapes. Most cave systems are found in limestone bedrock.
Limestone has numerous uses: as a building material, an essential component of concrete (Portland cement), as aggregate for the base of roads, as white pigment or filler in products such as toothpaste or paints, as a chemical feedstock for the production of lime, as a soil conditioner, and as a popular decorative addition to rock gardens. Limestone formations contain about 30% of the world’s petroleum reservoirs.
Limestone is a raw material that is used globally in a variety of different ways including construction, agriculture and as industrial materials. Limestone is very common in architecture, especially in Europe and North America. Many landmarks across the world, including the Great Pyramid and its associated complex in Giza, Egypt, were made of limestone. So many buildings in Kingston, Ontario, Canada were, and continue to be, constructed from it that it is nicknamed the ‘Limestone City’. Limestone, metamorphosed by heat and pressure produces marble, which has been used for many statues, buildings and stone tabletops. On the island of Malta, a variety of limestone called Globigerina limestone was, for a long time, the only building material available, and is still very frequently used on all types of buildings and sculptures.
Limestone can be processed into many various forms such as brick, cement, powdered/crushed, or as a filler. Limestone is readily available and relatively easy to cut into blocks or more elaborate carving. Ancient American sculptors valued limestone because it was easy to work and good for fine detail. Going back to the Late Preclassic period (by 200–100 BCE), the Maya civilization (Ancient Mexico) created refined sculpture using limestone because of these excellent carving properties. The Maya would decorate the ceilings of their sacred buildings (known as lintels) and cover the walls with carved limestone panels. Carved on these sculptures were political and social stories, and this helped communicate messages of the king to his people. Limestone is long-lasting and stands up well to exposure, which explains why many limestone ruins survive. However, it is very heavy (density 2.6), making it impractical for tall buildings, and relatively expensive as a building material.