1. The History of Lapis Lazuli
2. Lapis Lazuli the Mask of Tutankhamun
3. More Lapis Lazuli Facts
4. Healing Properties of Lapis Lazuli
5. Article Photos
6. Lapis Lazuli | Explore Our Collection
7. Read More
The History of Lapis Lazuli
The history of lapis lazuli which is one of the oldest and best known of all gemstones can be accurately traced back thousands of years. Along with the mineral turquoise this 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.
Lapis lazuli stone 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 which features lapis lazuli, white quartz, obsidian, turquoise, carnelian and coloured glass.
In the ancient world lapis lazuli was known as 'sapphirus'. It was described by the 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 pyrite was a relatively unknown mineral at the time.
Pyrite is one of several different crystalline minerals that make up lapis lazuli. Stones with a more solid colour that didn't feature these golden inclusions was known as kyanos but 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 not because of any visible similarities but because it was once known as sapphirus. Pliny wrote that sapphirus included with spots of gold was not suitable for engraving which tells us that pyrite and possibly some of the other minerals present were too hard for the Ancient Romans to cut through.
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 that 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 which exhibited incredible levels of craftsmanship, skill and artistry. The wide range of materials indicated not only the presence of huge wealth but also that an extensive network of trade must have been in place. This was apparent because many of the stones and metals that had been used 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 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 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. Some amazing photos can be seen by following the link below the image.
Golden lyre of Ur or bull's lyre and a lapis lazuli stone Necklace from the same location
More Lapis Lazuli Facts
Lapis lazuli can only be found in a few places worldwide because of the specific geological conditions required for the stone 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 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 it was also 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.
Although lapis lazuli is often referred to as a mineral it's not correct because the stone is made up of several different minerals so is actually a rock.
The golden specs often seen in this blue metamorphic rock are the mineral pyrite. Surprisingly the inclusions are in the lazurite which is one of the main constituents of lapis lazuli and the mineral that gives the stone its blue colour. Other minerals that are often 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. The stone has been mined in this region for more than 6,500 years 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 trails high up on treacherous slopes in the Hindu-Kush Mountains. Although there were once several lapis lazuli mines in operation, there is now just one.
Lapis lazuli can also be found in Siberia and Chile and in recent years material from Chile has rivalled the quality of stone mined in 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 scratched quite easily.
Lapis lazuli stones being polished in Afghanistan
Healing Properties of Lapis Lazuli
In crystal healing lapis lazuli is said to be a stone of serenity and the key to spiritual attainment. 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, it strengthens psychic ability and blocks negative energy. A deeply calming stone that's great for the relief of stress so it's often used for meditation. It encourages creativity, clears the mind to make room for new ideas and inspires confidence whilst boosting feelings of happiness and contentment.
The photograph of the lapis lazuli at the top of our article is courtesy of James St John. The lapis lazuli tumbled stones are from our own collection. The museum exhibits come from the website of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. With the exception of the final image in our article all photos are clickable and redirect to the original full size image.