Lapis lazuli

Last updated
Lapis lazuli
Lapis-lazuli hg.jpg
Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in its natural state
Category Metamorphic rock
(repeating unit)
mixture of minerals with lazurite as the main constituent.
Crystal system None, as lapis is a rock. Lazurite, the main constituent, frequently occurs as dodecahedra
Color Blue, or purple, mottled with white calcite and brassy pyrite
Crystal habit Compact, massive
Fracture Uneven-Conchoidal
Mohs scale hardness5–5.5
Luster dull
Streak light blue
Specific gravity 2.7–2.9
Refractive index 1.5
Other characteristicsThe variations in composition cause a wide variation in the above values.

Lapis lazuli ( /ˈlæpɪsˈlæzjʊli, -l/ ), or lapis for short, is a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color. As early as the 7th millennium BCE, lapis lazuli was mined in the Sar-i Sang mines, [1] in Shortugai, and in other mines in Badakhshan province in northeast Afghanistan. [2] Lapis was highly valued by the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300–1900 BC). Lapis beads have been found at Neolithic burials in Mehrgarh, the Caucasus, and even as far from Afghanistan as Mauritania. [3] It was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BCE). [4]

Metamorphic rock Rock which was subjected to heat and pressure causing profound physical or chemical change

Metamorphic rocks arise from the transformation of existing rock types, in a process called metamorphism, which means "change in form". The original rock (protolith) is subjected to heat and pressure, causing profound physical or chemical change. The protolith may be a sedimentary, igneous, or existing metamorphic rock.

Gemstone Piece of mineral crystal used to make jewelry

A gemstone is a piece of mineral crystal which, in cut and polished form, is used to make jewelry or other adornments. However, certain rocks and occasionally organic materials that are not minerals are also used for jewelry and are therefore often considered to be gemstones as well. Most gemstones are hard, but some soft minerals are used in jewelry because of their luster or other physical properties that have aesthetic value. Rarity is another characteristic that lends value to a gemstone.

Ancient history Human history from the earliest records to the end of the classical period

Ancient history as a term refers to the aggregate of past events from the beginning of writing and recorded human history and extending as far as the post-classical history. The phrase may be used either to refer to the period of time or the academic discipline.


At the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Virgin Mary.

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th through the 15th centuries

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Ultramarine A deep blue color pigment which was originally made with ground lapis lazuli

Ultramarine is a deep blue color pigment which was originally made by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder. The name comes from the Latin ultramarinus, literally "beyond the sea", because the pigment was imported into Europe from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Pigment material that changes the color of reflected or transmitted light

A pigment is a material that changes the color of reflected or transmitted light as the result of wavelength-selective absorption. This physical process differs from fluorescence, phosphorescence, and other forms of luminescence, in which a material emits light. Most materials selectively absorb certain wavelengths of light. Materials that humans have chosen and developed for use as pigments usually have special properties that make them useful for coloring other materials. A pigment must have a high tinting strength relative to the materials it colors. It must be stable in solid form at ambient temperatures.

Today, mines in northeast Afghanistan are still the major source of lapis lazuli. Important amounts are also produced from mines west of Lake Baikal in Russia, and in the Andes mountains in Chile. Smaller quantities are mined in Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada. [5]

Lake Baikal freshwater lake in Russia

Lake Baikal is a rift lake in Russia, located in southern Siberia, between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast.

Andes mountain range running along the tu mamide of South America

The Andes or Andean Mountains are the longest continental mountain range in the world, forming a continuous highland along the western edge of South America. This range is about 7,000 km (4,300 mi) long, about 200 to 700 km wide, and of an average height of about 4,000 m (13,000 ft). The Andes extend from north to south through seven South American countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.


Lapis is the Latin word for "stone" and lazulī is the genitive form of the Medieval Latin lazulum, which is taken from the Arabic لازوردlāzaward, itself from the Persian لاجوردlājevard, which is the name of the stone in Persian [6] and also of a place where lapis lazuli was mined. "Lazulum" is etymologically related to the color blue and used as a root for the word for blue in several languages, including Spanish and Portuguese "azul". [7] [8]

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets, and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Medieval Latin form of Latin used in the Middle Ages

Medieval Latin was the form of Latin used in Roman Catholic Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In this region it served as the primary written language, though local languages were also written to varying degrees. Latin functioned as the main medium of scholarly exchange, as the liturgical language of the Church, and as the working language of science, literature, law, and administration.

Persian language Western Iranian language

Persian, also known by its endonym Farsi, is one of the Western Iranian languages within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. It is primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and some other regions which historically were Persianate societies and considered part of Greater Iran. It is written right to left in the Persian alphabet, a modified variant of the Arabic script.

Science and uses

High Middle Ages period in European history from 1000-1250 CE

The High Middle Ages, or High Medieval Period, was the period of European history that commenced around 1000 and lasted until around 1250. The High Middle Ages were preceded by the Early Middle Ages and were followed by the Late Middle Ages, which ended around 1500.

Renaissance cultural movement that spanned the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th century

The Renaissance is a period in European history, covering the span between the 14th and 17th centuries and marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. The traditional view focuses more on the early modern aspects of the Renaissance and argues that it was a break from the past, but many historians today focus more on its medieval aspects and argue that it was an extension of the middle ages.


The most important mineral component of lapis lazuli is lazurite [9] (25% to 40%), a feldspathoid silicate mineral with the formula (Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1-2. [10] Most lapis lazuli also contains calcite (white), sodalite (blue), and pyrite (metallic yellow). Some samples of lapis lazuli contain augite; diopside; enstatite; mica; hauynite; hornblende, nosean, and sulfur-rich löllingite geyerite.

Lazurite A feldspathoid and a member of the sodalite group

Lazurite is a tectosilicate mineral with sulfate, sulfur and chloride with formula: (Na,Ca)8[(S,Cl,SO4,OH)2|(Al6Si6O24)]. It is a feldspathoid and a member of the sodalite group. Lazurite crystallizes in the isometric system although well formed crystals are rare. It is usually massive and forms the bulk of the gemstone lapis lazuli.

The feldspathoids are a group of tectosilicate minerals which resemble feldspars but have a different structure and much lower silica content. They occur in rare and unusual types of igneous rocks, and are not found in rocks containing primary quartz.

Calcite carbonate mineral

Calcite is a carbonate mineral and the most stable polymorph of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The Mohs scale of mineral hardness, based on scratch hardness comparison, defines value 3 as "calcite".

Lapis lazuli usually occurs in crystalline marble as a result of contact metamorphism.


The intense blue color is due to the presence of the trisulfur radical anion (S
-) in the crystal. [11] An electronic excitation of one electron from the highest doubly filled molecular orbital (No. 24) into the lowest singly occupied orbital (No. 25) [12] results in a very intense absorption line at λmax ~617 nm.


Lapis lazuli is found in limestone in the Kokcha River valley of Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan, where the Sar-e-Sang mine deposits have been worked for more than 6,000 years. [13] Afghanistan was the source of lapis for the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, as well as the later Greeks and Romans. Ancient Egyptians obtained this material through trade from Afghanistan with the Aryans. During the height of the Indus Valley Civilisation about 2000 BCE, the Harappan colony now known as Shortugai was established near the lapis mines. [3]

According to the Sorbonne's mineralogist Pierre Bariand's leading work on the sources of lapis lazuli in modern times, and to references in Afghanistan's Blue Treasure: Lapis Lazuli (2011) by Lailee McNair Bakhtiar, the lapis lazuli is found in "caves" not traditionally considered "mines" and the stone lapis lazuli is from the primary source of the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan's Kochka River Valley and not in Pakistan.[ citation needed ]

In addition to the Afghan deposits, lapis is also extracted in the Andes (near Ovalle, Chile); and to the west of Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia, at the Tultui Lazurite deposit. It is mined in smaller amounts in Angola; Argentina; Burma; Pakistan; Canada; Italy, India; and in the United States in California and Colorado. [5]

Uses and substitutes

Lapis takes an excellent polish and can be made into jewelry, carvings, boxes, mosaics, ornaments, small statues, and vases. During the Renaissance, Lapis was ground and processed to make the pigment ultramarine for use in frescoes and oil painting. Its usage as a pigment in oil paint largely ended in the early 19th century when a chemically identical synthetic variety became available.

Lapis lazuli is commercially synthesized or simulated by the Gilson process, which is used to make artificial ultramarine and hydrous zinc phosphates. [14] It may also be substituted by spinel or sodalite, or by dyed jasper or howlite. [15]

History and art

In the ancient world

Naqada I (Egypt) female figure, circa 3700 BCE. Bone with Lapis inlay from Badakhshan. Naqada I bone figure.jpg
Naqada I (Egypt) female figure, circa 3700 BCE. Bone with Lapis inlay from Badakhshan.

Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan and exported to the Mediterranean world and South Asia since the Neolithic age. [16] Lapis lazuli beads have been found at Mehrgarh, a neolithic site near Quetta in Pakistan, [17] on the ancient trade route between Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, dating to the 7th millennium BCE. Quantities of these beads have also been found at 4th millennium BCE settlements in Northern Mesopotamia, and at the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sukhteh in southeast Iran (3rd millennium BCE). A dagger with a lapis handle, a bowl inlaid with lapis, and amulets, beads, and inlays representing eyebrows and beards, were found in the Royal Tombs of the Sumerian city-state of Ur from the 3rd Millennium BCE. [16]

Lapis was also used in ancient Mesopotamia by the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians for seals and jewelry. In the Mesopotamian poem the Epic of Gilgamesh (17th-18th Century BCE), one of the oldest known works of literature, lapis lazuli is mentioned several times. The Statue of Ebih-Il, a 3rd millennium BCE statue found in the ancient city-state of Mari in modern-day Syria, now in the Louvre, uses lapis lazuli inlays for the irises of the eyes. [18]

In ancient Egypt, lapis lazuli was a favorite stone for amulets and ornaments such as scarabs. Lapis jewelry has been found at excavations of the Predynastic Egyptian site Naqada (3300–3100 BCE). At Karnak, the relief carvings of Thutmose III (1479-1429 BCE) show fragments and barrel-shaped pieces of lapis lazuli being delivered to him as tribute. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra. [3] [19]

Jewellery made of lapis lazuli has also been found at Mycenae attesting to relations between the Myceneans and the developed civilizations of Egypt and the East. [20]

In late classical times and as late as the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was often called sapphire (sapphirus in Latin, sappir in Hebrew), [21] though it had little to do with the stone today known as the blue corundum variety sapphire. In his book on stones, the Greek scientist Theophrastus described "the sapphirus, which is speckled with gold," a description which matches lapis lazuli. [22]

There are many references to sapphires in the Old Testament, but most scholars agree that, since sapphire was not known before the Roman Empire, they most likely are references to lapis lazuli. For instance, Exodus 24:10: "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone.." (KJV). The term used in the Latin Vulgate Bible in this citation is "lapidus sapphiri," the term for lapis lazuli. [23] Modern translations of the Bible, such as the New Living Translation Second Edition, [24] refer to lapis lazuli in most instances instead of sapphire.

See also

Related Research Articles

Jewellery Form of personal adornment

Jewellery or jewelry consists of small decorative items worn for personal adornment, such as brooches, rings, necklaces, earrings, pendants, bracelets, and cufflinks. Jewellery may be attached to the body or the clothes. From a western perspective, the term is restricted to durable ornaments, excluding flowers for example. For many centuries metal, often combined with gemstones, has been the normal material for jewellery, but other materials such as shells and other plant materials may be used. It is one of the oldest type of archaeological artefact – with 100,000-year-old beads made from Nassarius shells thought to be the oldest known jewellery. The basic forms of jewellery vary between cultures but are often extremely long-lived; in European cultures the most common forms of jewellery listed above have persisted since ancient times, while other forms such as adornments for the nose or ankle, important in other cultures, are much less common.

Turquoise opaque, blue-to-green mineral that is a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminium

Turquoise is an opaque, blue-to-green mineral that is a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminium, with the chemical formula Cu Al6(PO4)4(OH)8·4H2O. It is rare and valuable in finer grades and has been prized as a gemstone and ornamental stone for thousands of years owing to its unique hue. In recent times, turquoise has been devalued, like most other opaque gems, by the introduction onto the market of treatments, imitations and synthetics.

Necklace article of jewellery

A necklace is an article of jewelry that is worn around the neck. Necklaces may have been one of the earliest types of adornment worn by humans. They often serve ceremonial, religious, magical, or funerary purposes and are also used as symbols of wealth and status, given that they are commonly made of precious metals and stones.

Sodalite tectosilicate mineral

Sodalite is a rich royal blue tectosilicate mineral widely used as an ornamental gemstone. Although massive sodalite samples are opaque, crystals are usually transparent to translucent. Sodalite is a member of the sodalite group with hauyne, nosean, lazurite and tugtupite.

Azurite carbonate mineral

Azurite is a soft, deep blue copper mineral produced by weathering of copper ore deposits. In the early 19th century, it was also known as chessylite after the type locality at Chessy-les-Mines near Lyon, France. The mineral, a carbonate with the chemical formula Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2, has been known since ancient times, and was mentioned in Pliny the Elder's Natural History under the Greek name kuanos (κυανός: "deep blue," root of English cyan) and the Latin name caeruleum. The blue of azurite is exceptionally deep and clear, and for that reason the mineral has tended to be associated since antiquity with the deep blue color of low-humidity desert and winter skies. The modern English name of the mineral reflects this association, since both azurite and azure are derived via Arabic from the Persian lazhward (لاژورد), an area known for its deposits of another deep blue stone, lapis lazuli ("stone of azure").

Meluḫḫa or Melukhkha is the Sumerian name of a prominent trading partner of Sumer during the Middle Bronze Age. Its identification remains an open question, but most scholars associate it with the Indus Valley Civilization.

Afghanite tectosilicate mineral

Afghanite, (Na,K)22Ca10[Si24Al24O96](SO4)6Cl6, is a hydrous sodium, calcium, potassium, sulfate, chloride, carbonate alumino-silicate mineral. Afghanite is a feldspathoid of the cancrinite group and typically occurs with sodalite group minerals. It forms blue to colorless, typically massive crystals in the trigonal crystal system. The lowering of the symmetry from typical (for cancrinite group) hexagonal one is due to ordering of Si and Al. It has a Mohs hardness of 5.5 to 6 and a specific gravity of 2.55 to 2.65. It has refractive index values of nω=1.523 and nε=1.529. It has one direction of perfect cleavage and exhibits conchoidal fracture. It fluoresces a bright orange.


Shortugai (Shortughai) was an Indus Valley Civilization trading colony established around 2000 BC on the Oxus river near the lapis lazuli mines in northern Afghanistan. It is considered to be the northernmost settlement of the Indus Valley Civilization. According to Bernard Sergent, "not one of the standard characteristics of the Harappan cultural complex is missing from it".

Bhirrana Place in Haryana, India

Bhirrana, also Bhirdana and Birhana, is a small village located in Fatehabad District, in the Indian state of Haryana. Its history stretches back to pre-Harappan times, as revealed by archaeological discoveries.

Sar-i Sang Place in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan

Sar-i Sang is a settlement in the Kuran Wa Munjan District of Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, famous for its ancient lapis lazuli mines producing the world's finest lapis.

Kokcha River river in Afghanistan

The Kokcha River is located in northeastern Afghanistan. A tributary of the Panj river it flows through Badakhshan Province in the Hindu Kush The city of Feyzabad lies along the Kokcha. Near the village of Artin Jelow there is a bridge over the river.

Mining in Afghanistan is controlled by the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, which is headquartered in Kabul with regional offices in other parts of the country. Afghanistan has over 1400 mineral fields, containing barite, chromite, coal, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, petroleum, precious and semi-precious stones, salt, sulfur, talc, and zinc, among many other minerals. Gemstones include high-quality emerald, lapis lazuli, red garnet and ruby. According to a joint study by The Pentagon and the United States Geological Survey, Afghanistan has an estimated US$3 trillion of untapped minerals.

Imports to Ur reflect the cultural and trade connections of the Sumerian city of Ur. During the period of the Early Dynastic III royal cemetery, Ur was importing elite goods from geographically distant places. These objects include precious metals such as gold and silver, and semi-precious stones, namely lapis lazuli and carnelian. These objects are all the more impressive considering the distance from which they traveled to reach Mesopotamia and Ur specifically.

Gemstones of Pakistan

Pakistan has large reserves of mineral ores and gemstones. Pakistani gemstones include a variety of minerals such as peridot, aquamarine, topaz, ruby and emerald, making the country significant in the mineral world.

Marian blue

Marian blue is a tone of the color celeste named for its use with the Virgin Mary.


Notes and citations

  1. David Bomford and Ashok Roy, A Closer Look- Colour (2009), National Gallery Company, London, ( ISBN   978-1-85709-442-8)
  2. Moorey, Peter Roger (1999). Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: the Archaeological Evidence. Eisenbrauns. pp. 86–87. ISBN   978-1-57506-042-2.
  3. 1 2 3 Bowersox & Chamberlin 1995
  4. Alessandro Bongioanni & Maria Croce
  5. 1 2 "All about colored gemstones," the International Colored Gemstones Association
  6. Oxford English Dictionary
  7. Senning, Alexander (2007). "lapis lazuli (lazurite)". Elsevier's Dictionary of Chemoetymology. Amsterdam: Elsevier. p. 224. ISBN   978-0-444-52239-9.
  8. Weekley, Ernest (1967). "azure". An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Dover Publications. p. 97.
  9. Mindat entry relating to lapis lazuli
  10. Mindat – Lazurite
  11. Boros, E.; Earle, M. J.; Gilea, M. A.; Metlen, A.; Mudring, A.-V.; Rieger, F.; Robertson, A. J.; Seddon, K. R.; Tomaszowska, A. A.; Trusov, L.; Vyle, J. S. (2010). "On the dissolution of non-metallic solid elements (sulfur, selenium, tellurium and phosphorus) in ionic liquids". Chem. Comm. 46: 716–718. doi:10.1039/b910469k.
  12. H. S. Rzepa, "Lapis lazuli: the Colour of Ultramarine." Accessed: 2011-03-06. (Archived by WebCite® at
  13. Oldershaw 2003
  14. Read, Peter (2005). Gemmology , Elsevier, p. 185. ISBN   0-7506-6449-5
  15. Lapis lazuli, Gemstone Buzz.
  16. 1 2 Moorey, Peter Roger (1999). Ancient mesopotamian materials and industries: the archaeological evidence. Eisenbrauns. pp. 86–87. ISBN   978-1-57506-042-2.
  17. Monthly, Jewellery (2015-04-02). "A complete guide to Gemstones". Jewellery & Watch Magazine | Jewellery news, jewellery fashion and trends, jewellery designer reviews, jewellery education, opinions | Wrist watch reviews - Jewellery Monthly. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
  18. Claire, Iselin. "Ebih-Il, the Superintendent of Mari". Musée du Louvre . Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  19. Moment of Science site, Indiana Public Media
  20. Alcestis Papademetriou, Mycenae, John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation, 2015, p. 32.
  21. Schumann, Walter (2006) [2002]. "Sapphire". Gemstones of the World. trans. Annette Englander & Daniel Shea (newly revised & expanded 3rd ed.). New York: Sterling. p. 102. In antiquity and as late as the Middle Ages, the name sapphire was understood to mean what is today described as lapis lazuli.
  22. Theophrastus, On Stones (De Lapidibus) - IV-23, translated by D.E. Eichholtz, Oxford University Press, 1965.
  23. Pearlie Braswell-Tripp (2013), Real Diamonds and Precious Stones of the Bible ( ISBN   978-1-4797-9644-1)
  24. "In His Image Devotional Bible" (IBN 978-1-4143-3763-0)