Lapis Lazuli | Blue Metamorphic Rock
Lapis Lazuli through the Ages
Lapis lazuli which is one of the oldest and best known of all gemstones has a history that can be traced back thousands of years. Along with the mineral turquoise, this rich blue coloured 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. Carvings found in Ancient Egyptian tombs including that of King Tutankhamun date back 3000 years BC and one of the most famous artefacts which is his gold funerary mask not only features lapis lazuli but also white quartz, obsidian, turquoise, carnelian and coloured glass.
In the ancient world lapis lazuli was known as "sapphirus" and was described by Theophrastus Ancient Greek philosopher (successor to Aristotle) 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 pyrite (a relatively unknown mineral at that time) is one of several different crystalline minerals that make up lapis lazuli. Stones with a more solid colour that didn't feature visible inclusions of pyrite were known as kyanos but it's believed the name is likely to have incorporated other dark blue coloured stones as well. Pliny wrote that sapphirus included with spots of gold was not suitable for engraving which indicates the pyrite and possibly other minerals present were too hard to cut through. Throughout history lapis lazuli has been confused for sapphire not because of any similarity in colour but because it was once known as sapphirus.
Ultramarine was a highly sought after deep blue coloured pigment produced by grinding down lapis lazuli. Used in art and particularly paintings, it was popular from ancient times until 1826 when a synthetic alternative was invented. Some say Michelangelo's painting The Entombment was unfinished because he couldn't afford to buy ultramarine and 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 from Chile
In Ancient Egypt lapis lazuli was believed to open the heart to love and lead the soul into immortality. In the Bible the Book of Exodus states that sapphirus was one of the twelve precious gemstones embedded in the breastplate of the Jewish high priest.
During excavations of the royal graves in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur artefacts featuring gold, silver and gemstones were discovered which exhibited incredible levels of craftsmanship, skill and artistry. The wide range of materials indicated the presence of huge wealth and that an extensive network of trade must have been in place because many of the stones and metals were not found naturally in that region. Sumer was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and was home to one of the earliest civilizations. Over 6000 items carved from lapis lazuli were found there and the stone used for these artefacts would most likely have come from Afghanistan. From there it would have been transported to countries including Mesopotamia, Ur, Egypt and India.
This lyre bull's head which is crafted from gold and lapis lazuli 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 dates to approximately 3500 BC. Additional photos can be found by following the link below.
Golden lyre of Ur or Bull's lyre and a lapis lazuli necklace from the same location
The vast majority of the world's lapis lazuli comes from the Sar-e Sang deposit in the Badakhshan province of north eastern Afghanistan. This rich blue coloured stone has been mined in this region for more than 6,500 and 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 footpaths high up on steep treaturious slopes in the Hindu-Kush Mountains. Although there were once several mines in operation there is now just one.
More Lapis Lazuli Facts
Lapis lazuli is a metamorphic rock that can only be found in a few places worldwide because of the specific geological conditions required for it to form. In recent years this has enabled historians to reconstruct some of the ancient trade routes. Although often referred to as a mineral it's incorrect because the stone is made up of several different minerals. The inclusions of pyrite are actually in the mineral lazurite which is also the primary source of the stone's rich blue colour. Other minerals present include sodalite and white calcite whilst diopside, enstatite, mica, hauynite and hornblende amongst others can also be found in certain specimens.
Lapis Lazuli Being Polished in Afghanistan
Lapis lazuli can also be found in Siberia and Chile and in recent years, some of the stone from Chile has rivalled the quality of material from Afghanistan. It can also be found a few other countries around the world but only in relatively small quantities. On Mohs scale of mineral hardness lapis lazuli grades 5 to 5½ so must be handled carefully because it can be easily scratched.
In crystal healing this ancient stone is said to be the key to spiritual attainment and can help expand intellectual capacity and awareness. It stimulates purity and clarity of mind and is a useful companion in the organization of daily life. In Ancient Rome lapis lazuli was used as an aphrodisiac.
The photograph at the top of our page is courtesy of James St John.
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