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What Is Alabaster?

Alabaster is found in caves in the form of mineral deposits.
Calcite alabaster was originally imported from Egypt.
Alabaster is found in caves in the form of stalagmites.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2014
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Alabaster is a term which is used to refer to two forms of calcium. Both are characterized by being creamy to snow white in color, and they have been used in carving, ornaments, and ornamental statuary for centuries. The color is so memorable that the word is also used to refer to other white objects, which is why romance novels refer to “alabaster bosoms.” Numerous examples of carved alabaster can be found in museums and venerable buildings all over the world.

The ancients favored calcite alabaster, a very hard form of calcium carbonate. This stone was originally imported from Egypt, a country which also produced a number of works of art using this mineral. It is often found in caverns as a deposited mineral in the form of stalagmites. Modern alabaster is usually gypsum alabaster, or calcium sulfate. Gypsum is much softer than calcite, and it is found extensively in England, where deposits of seawater slowly evaporated over the course of centuries. However, the ancients knew and used both forms.

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While white is the classic color associated with alabaster, the mineral can also occur in other colors, such as pale brown or reddish, and it may be veined with color. It is often slightly translucent, and some carvers work the stone to bring out this natural translucence, which gives it a sort of glow. Thinly sliced alabaster has also been used to make windows and transparent artifacts. Examples of work dating back thousands of years have been found in cultures all over the world, suggesting a widespread popularity for the mineral.

Stonecarvers and masons continue to work in alabaster. Some carvers like to make mock-ups in gypsum, since the mineral is soft and easy to work. Others may use it to produce pieces for sale. The stone is readily available from a wide range of suppliers who mine it in several locations around the world. Various sizes can be purchased, depending on need, and it is an excellent idea to inspect stone, if possible, before purchasing it, to ensure that it is in good condition.

Translucent alabaster objects should be kept cool so that they do not cloud. Water and a soft cloth can be used to clean this mineral, with only very mild soaps if soap is needed. In some cases, objects may be waxed to make them less porous, in which case people may want to periodically strip the wax off and re-wax the piece. People may want to consult an artist or mason about wax removers that are suitable for alabaster, and if they have a very old artifact, it is better to entrust it to someone who is experienced with conservation of such objects.

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