Lapis Lazuli the stone, and Lazurite the mineral, have been delighting humans for millennia as can be seen from many archaeological digs. They have been mined in northeast Afghanistan and Pakistan since as early as the 7000 BCE, and this region continues to produce the finest Lapis Lazuli and Lazurite today. Carved into beads, they have been found in neolithic burial sites not only in Afghanistan, but as far away as Mauritania, in western North Africa and into east into India. They were actively traded throughout Eurasia, and held in particular high esteem in ancient Mediterranean civilizations.
Despite this, the historical lore of Lapis Lazuli and Lazurite are much more difficult to trace since like many other blue stones they was called by the catch-all name of sapphirus. It wasn’t until the medieval era that they began being called by their current names. The names may originate from the Persian word lazhuward, which simply means “blue”, or the Arabic word lazaward, which can mean “heaven” or “sky”.
Ancient Egyptians began using Lapis Lazuli and Lazurite for jewelry and small carvings as far back as 3100 BCE. With its vivid coloring, and glittery golden Pyrite Lapis Lazuli was an ideal stone to decorate the tombs of Pharaohs and their queens, as well as other high ranking individuals. The most famous example of this is the golden sarcophagus and the death mask of King Tutankhamen (r.1332-1323 BCE), both of which were inlaid with Lapis Lazuli and Lazurite. In the case of the deathmask, the Lazurite is prominently used for the king’s eyebrows! Lapis Lazuli was also ground into a fine power and used as an eye cosmetic. Sometimes the blue gem provided the most popular color, while at other times green Malachite was “in”. Both were used as eye-shadow from the earliest Egyptian Pharaohs all the way to the final one, Queen Cleopatra.
In tombs throughout Eurasia, from Greece to China, Lapis Lazuli and Lazurite stand out as gemstones fit for the highest echelons of society. Of particular note, is the tomb of the Sumerian “Queen” Puabi (c.2600 BCE) which was every bit as sumptuous as the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. This noble woman was laid to rest wearing lavish amounts of Gold and Lapis Lazuli jewelry. Along with many other grave goods, her tomb contained a marvelous lyre. The front of this musical instrument has a bearded bull’s head crafted out of Gold and Lapis Lazuli. The choice of stones on this lyre wasn’t accidental or mere fashion. Instead, it evokes an Assyrian hymn to the Moon God Sin, “Strong bull, great of horns, perfect in form, with long flowing beard, bright as Lapis Lazuli.” We don’t know very much about Puabi, or even if she was a Queen. It has been theorized that she may have been a High Priestess, perhaps dedicated to the worship of the Moon God.