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Lapis Lazuli Properties Facts and Photos


lapis lazuli blue coloured metamorphic rock

 

 

Contents

1. Lapis Lazuli Through the Ages
2. Mask of Tutankhamun
3. More Facts
4. Healing Properties
5. Article Photos
6. Our Collection of Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli Through the Ages

Lapis lazuli is one of the oldest and best known of all gemstones.  Its history can be accurately traced back thousands of years.

This blue metamorphic rock was highly sought after by some of the earliest civilizations including Babylonia, Ur and ancient Egypt.  As well as being carved into amulets and talismans, it was also used for jewellery and in religious ceremonies.

Lapis lazuli carvings found in ancient Egyptian tombs including that of King Tutankhamun, date back 3000 years BC.  One of the world's most famous artefacts is the boy king's gold funerary mask.  This priceless work of art features lapis lazuli, white quartz, obsidian, turquoise, carnelian and coloured glass.

tutankhamun's funerary mask inlaid with coloured glass lapis lazuli and other gemstones
Funerary mask of King Tutankhamun

In the ancient world lapis lazuli was known as 'sapphirus'.  It was described by ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus and later by Pliny the Elder Roman author, naturalist and philosopher as "a blue stone with spots of gold that was never transparent."

The "spots of gold" which are inclusions of pyrite was a relatively unknown mineral at that time.

Pyrite is one of several crystalline minerals that make up lapis lazuli.  Stones with a more solid colour that didn't feature these golden inclusions were known as kyanos.  It's believed the name is likely to have incorporated other dark blue coloured stones as well.

Throughout history lapis lazuli has been confused for sapphire.  This isn't because of any visible similarities but because it was once known as sapphirus.

Pliny wrote sapphirus included with spots of gold was not suitable for engraving.  This tells us the pyrite and possibly other minerals present were too hard to cut through.

mother of pearl bowl full of large lapis lazuli tumbled stones

Lapis lazuli tumbled stones from Chile

In ancient Egypt lapis lazuli was believed to open the heart to love and lead the soul into immortality.  The Bible's Book of Exodus states sapphirus was one of the twelve precious gemstones in the breastplate of the Jewish high priest.

During excavations of royal graves in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, artefacts featuring gold, silver and gemstones were discovered.  Many exhibited incredible levels of craftsmanship, skill and artistry.

The wide range of materials indicate not only the presence of huge wealth but also that an extensive network of trade was in place.  This is apparent because many of the stones and metals that had been used are not found naturally in the region.

Sumer was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia modern day Iraq.  It was home to one of the earliest civilizations. Over 6000 items carved from lapis lazuli were found there.  The stone is believed to have come from Afghanistan.  From there it would have been transported to countries including Mesopotamia, Ur, Egypt and India.

This lyre bull's head in the photo below is crafted from gold and lapis lazuli.  It was found in a king's grave during a British Museum expedition to Ur (modern day Iraq) in 1928.  A fine example of ancient Sumerian art, it has been dated to approximately 3500 BC.

The "golden lyre of Ur" link below leads to some really great photos.

ancient lapis lazuli artifacts a golden coloured cow with a lapis lazuli hand shaped beard and a lapis necklace
Golden lyre of Ur or bull's lyre and lapis lazuli necklace from the same location

A Few More Facts

Lapis lazuli can only be found in a few places around the world.  This is because specific geological conditions are required for it to form.  In recent years this has enabled historians to reconstruct some of the ancient trade routes.

Ultramarine was a highly sought after deep blue pigment produced by grinding down lapis lazuli. Used in art and particularly paintings, it was popular from ancient times until 1826.  A synthetic alternative was then created.

Some claim Michelangelo's painting The Entombment was unfinished because he couldn't afford ultramarine.  It may also have been because the pigment was in very short supply.

Rafael is said to only have used it for the final coat of his paintings choosing azurite instead for the base layers because it was cheaper.

Lapis lazuli is often referred to as a mineral but that's not correct.  The stone is made up of several different minerals which makes it a rock.

The inclusions of pyrite are actually in the mineral lazurite.  Lazurite which is one of several minerals in lapis lazuli is also responsible for the stone's blue colour.  Other minerals usually present include white calcite, diopside, enstatite, mica, sodalite, hauynite and hornblende.

The vast majority of the world's lapis lazuli comes from the Sar-e Sang deposit in the Badakhshan province of north eastern Afghanistan.  It has been mined in this region for more than 6,500 years.

As well as being some of the oldest mines in the world, they're also the most difficult to reach.  The only access is by a network of narrow trails high up on treacherous slopes in the Hindu-Kush Mountains.  Although several mines were once in operation today only one mine is in use.

Lapis lazuli can also be found in Siberia and Chile.  In recent years some stone from Chile has rivalled the quality of material from Afghanistan.  It can also be found in a few other countries around the world but only in relatively small quantities.

On Mohs scale of mineral hardness lapis lazuli grades 5 to 5.5.  For this reason it must be handled carefully because it can scratch quite easily.

Afghan man sitting on the floor polishing lapis lazuli with a stone polishing machine

Lapis lazuli stones being polished in Afghanistan

Metaphysical Healing Properties

When used for its metaphysical properties lapis lazuli is said to be a stone of serenity.  It can help expand intellectual capacity and awareness and stimulate clarity of mind.

It's a useful companion in the organization of daily life and has long been used for protection to ward off evil spirits.  Today it's used to guard against psychic attacks.

Lapis lazuli can help with dream work, strengthens psychic ability and blocks negative energy.  A deeply calming stone which makes it ideal for dealing with stress.  It encourages creativity, clears the mind to make room for new ideas and inspires confidence.   Lapis lazuli is also believed to boost feelings of happiness and contentment.

Article Photos

The photograph of the lapis lazuli at the top is courtesy of James St John.  The lapis lazuli tumbled stones are from our collection.  The museum exhibits come from the website of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. With the exception of the final image all are clickable and redirect to the original non-compressed photo. 

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