Lapis lazuli

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Lapis lazuli
Metamorphic rock
Lapis-lazuli hg.jpg
Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in its natural state
mixture of minerals with lazurite as the main constituent

Lapis lazuli ( UK: /ˌlæpɪsˈlæz(j)ʊli,ˈlæʒʊ-,-ˌl/ ; US: /ˈlæz(j)əli,ˈlæʒə-,-ˌl/ ), 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 lazuli artifacts, dated to 7570 BCE, have been found at Bhirrana, which is the oldest site of Indus Valley Civilisation. [3] Lapis was highly valued by the Indus Valley Civilisation (7570–1900 BCE). [3] [4] [5] Lapis beads have been found at Neolithic burials in Mehrgarh, the Caucasus, and as far away as Mauritania. [6] It was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BCE). [7]

By 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. Ultramarine 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. Ultramarine has also been found in dental tartar of medieval nuns and scribes. [8]

Major sources

Mines in northeast Afghanistan continue to be a 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 which is the source that the Inca used to carve artifacts and jewelry. Smaller quantities are mined in Pakistan, Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada. [9]


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. It means "sky" or "heaven"; so this is a "sky stone" or "heaven stone". Historically, it was mined in Badakshan region of upper Afghanistan, but also mined in Lājevard, Persia. 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. [10] [11]

Science and uses


The most important mineral component of lapis lazuli is lazurite [12] (25% to 40%), a blue feldspathoid silicate mineral with the formula (Na,Ca)
. [13] 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.

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


Lapis lazuli seen through a microscope (x240 magnification) Lapis-Lazuli microscope x240.jpg
Lapis lazuli seen through a microscope (x240 magnification)

The intense blue color is due to the presence of the trisulfur radical anion (S•−
) in the crystal. [14] An electronic excitation of one electron from the highest doubly filled molecular orbital (No. 24) into the lowest singly occupied orbital (No. 25) [15] 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. [16] Afghanistan was the source of lapis for the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, as well as the later Greeks and Romans. Ancient Egyptians obtained the material through trade with Mesopotamians, as part of Egypt–Mesopotamia relations. During the height of the Indus Valley Civilisation, approximately 2000 BCE, the Harappan colony, now known as Shortugai, was established near the lapis mines. [6]

According to Sorbonne 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, 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. [9]

Uses and substitutes

Lapis takes an excellent polish and can be made into jewelry, carvings, boxes, mosaics, ornaments, small statues, and vases. Interior items and finishing buildings can be also made with lapis. Two of the columns framing the iconostasis in St. Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg are built with lapis. 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 during 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. [17] It may also be substituted by spinel or sodalite, or by dyed jasper or howlite. [18]

History and art

In the ancient world

Ancient Egyptian cult image of Ptah; 945-600 BC; lapis lazuli; height of the figure: 5.2 cm, height of the dais: 0.4 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) Cult Image of the God Ptah MET DP142956.jpg
Ancient Egyptian cult image of Ptah; 945–600 BC; lapis lazuli; height of the figure: 5.2 cm, height of the dais: 0.4 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan and exported to the Mediterranean world and South Asia since the Neolithic age, [19] [20] along 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, 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. [19]

Lapis was also used in ancient Mesopotamia by the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians for seals and jewelry. It is mentioned several times in the Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh (17th–18th Century BCE), one of the oldest known works of literature. 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. [21]

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. [6] [22]

Jewelry 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. [23]

Pliny the Elder wrote that lapis lazuli is “opaque and sprinkled with specks of gold”.  Because the stone combines the blue of the heavens and golden glitter of the sun, it was emblematic of success in the old Jewish tradition. In the early Christian tradition lapis lazuli was regarded as the stone of Virgin Mary.

In late classical times and as late as the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was often called sapphire (sapphirus in Latin, sappir in Hebrew), [24] 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. [25]

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. [26] Modern translations of the Bible, such as the New Living Translation Second Edition, [27] refer to lapis lazuli in most instances instead of sapphire.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Jewellery Form of personal adornment

Jewellery or jewelry consists of 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 such as gold often combined with gemstones, has been the normal material for jewellery, but other materials such as shells and other plant materials may be used.

Ultramarine Deep blue purple 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.

Lazurite Tectosilicate mineral and a member of the sodalite group

Lazurite is a tectosilicate mineral with sulfate, sulfur and chloride with formula (Na,Ca)
. 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.

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Ancient art

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Sodalite is a royal blue tectosilicate mineral with the formula Na
, 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 Copper carbonate mineral

Azurite is a soft, deep-blue copper mineral produced by weathering of copper ore deposits. During the early 19th century, it was also known as chessylite, after the type locality at Chessy-les-Mines near Lyon, France. The mineral, a basic 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. Since antiquity, azurite's exceptionally deep and clear blue has been associated with 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").

Meluhha Prominent trading partner of Sumer during the Middle Bronze Age

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.

First Dynasty of Ur Royal dynasty in Mesopotamia

The First Dynasty of Ur was a 26th-25th century BCE dynasty of rulers of the city of Ur in ancient Sumer. It is part of the Early Dynastic period III of the History of Mesopotamia. It was preceded by the earlier First dynasty of Kish and the First Dynasty of Uruk.


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.

Cylinder seal Form of seal used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface

A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch in length, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface, generally wet clay. According to some sources, cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BC in the Near East, at the contemporary sites of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia and slightly later at Susa in south-western Iran during the Proto-Elamite period, and they follow the development of stamp seals in the Halaf culture or slightly earlier. They are linked to the invention of the latter's cuneiform writing on clay tablets. Other sources, however, date the earliest cylinder seals to a much earlier time, to the Late Neolithic period, hundreds of years before the invention of writing. They were used as an administrative tool, a form of signature, as well as jewelry and as magical amulets; later versions would employ notations with Mesopotamian cuneiform. In later periods, they were used to notarize or attest to multiple impressions of clay documents. Graves and other sites housing precious items such as gold, silver, beads, and gemstones often included one or two cylinder seals, as honorific grave goods.

Mining in Afghanistan Overview of mining in Afghanistan

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 1,400 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$1 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.

Art of Mesopotamia

The art of Mesopotamia has survived in the archaeological record from early hunter-gatherer societies on to the Bronze Age cultures of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. These empires were later replaced in the Iron Age by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia brought significant cultural developments, including the oldest examples of writing.

Indus–Mesopotamia relations

Indus–Mesopotamia relations are thought to have developed during the second half of 3rd millennium BCE, until they came to a halt with the extinction of the Indus valley civilization after around 1900 BCE. Mesopotamia had already been an intermediary in the trade of lapis lazuli between South Asia and Egypt since at least about 3200 BCE, in the context of Egypt-Mesopotamia relations.

Egypt–Mesopotamia relations

Egypt–Mesopotamia relations were the relations between the civilisations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in the Middle East. They seem to have developed from the 4th millennium BCE, starting in the Uruk period for Mesopotamia and the half a millennium younger Gerzean culture of Prehistoric Egypt. Influences can be seen in the visual arts of Egypt, in architecture, in technology, weaponry, in imported products, and also in the possible transfer of writing from Mesopotamia to Egypt and generated "deep-seated" parallels in the early stages of both cultures.

Etched carnelian beads

Etched carnelian beads, or sometimes Bleached carnelian beads, are a type of ancient decorative beads made from carnelian with an etched design in white, which were probably manufactured by the Indus Valley civilization during the 3rd millennium BCE. They were made according to a technique of alkaline-etching developed by the Harappans, and vast quantities of these beads were found in the archaeological sites of the Indus Valley civilization. They are considered as an important marker of ancient trade between the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and even Ancient Egypt, as these precious and unique manufactured items circulated in great numbers between these geographical areas during the 3rd millennium BCE, and have been found in numerous tomb deposits.


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