Lapis was highly valued by the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300–1900 BCE) and lapis beads have been found at Neolithic burials in Mehrgarh, the Caucasus, and as far away from Afghanistan as Mauritania. It was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BCE).
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. 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.
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. Smaller quantities are mined in Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada. In the United States limited quantities of lapis lazuli have been created in California, Colorado, and Arizona are the world's driving wellspring of lapis lazuli.
Lapis is the Latin word for "stone" and lazulī is the genitive form of the Medieval Latin lazulum, which is taken from the Arabic لازورد lāzaward, itself from the Persian لاجورد lājevard, which is the name of the stone in Persian 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.
The most important mineral component of lapis lazuli is lazurite (25% to 40%), a feldspathoid silicate mineral with the formula (Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1-2. 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.
The intense blue color is due to the presence of the trisulfur radical anion (S
3−) in the crystal. An electronic excitation of one electron from the highest doubly filled molecular orbital (No. 24) into the lowest singly occupied orbital (No. 25) 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. 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 Aryans. During the height of the Indus Valley Civilisation, approximately 2000 BCE, the Harappan colony, now known as Shortugai, was established near the lapis mines.
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.
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.
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 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. It may also be substituted by spinel or sodalite, or by dyed jasper or howlite.
Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan and exported to the Mediterranean world and South Asia since the Neolithic age. Lapis lazuli beads have been found at Mehrgarh, a neolithic site near Quetta in Pakistan, 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, 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.
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.
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.
In late classical times and as late as the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was often called sapphire (sapphirus in Latin, sappir in Hebrew), 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.
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. Modern translations of the Bible, such as the New Living Translation Second Edition, refer to lapis lazuli in most instances instead of sapphire.