Archaeologists and historians have analyzed the discoveries of lapis lazuli artifacts from ancient civilizations as a way to determine the patterns of ancient trade routes. Lapis lazuli was traded along the Silk Road, referred to as the Great Khorasan Road, connecting Mesopotamia to Iran, Afghanistan, and eventually China. Traders travelled this road with their merchandise for millennia.
The discovery of lapis lazuli items across Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions points to a productive trade route because lapis lazuli could only have been extracted from the Afghan mines in Badakhshan, meaning it had to have been moved around manually. Supplies were taken to the mountainside over twenty miles of dangerous trails from the village of Azarat. The mine, located 1,100 feet up a steep mountainside, was reached by a winding path that had to be re-marked each spring after being swept away by the harsh winter weather. A fire would be lit near the rock and once it was sufficiently heated miners would splash it with cold water to expand and loosen the stone. Then picks, axes, and chisels were used to extract the gemstone.
Late Ubaid/Uruk Period
The beginning of regular trade of lapis lazuli began in the late Ubaid period. It likely stemmed from the fact that civilizations finally began to have enough wealth and leisure time to begin searching for and acquiring luxury items. Before this, trade had been restricted to essential materials. With the start of luxury trade, lapis lazuli quickly rose to prominence along with turquoise, agate, jadeite, and beryl. Lapis was transferred to Iran, and from there shipped to Mesopotamia in small, semi-processed blocks. Lapis was incredibly expensive, as people had to pay for the price of extraction, costs for a middleman, transport costs, processing costs, and taxes. During the Ubaid/Uruk period, the production and trade of lapis lazuli was practically a monopoly held by the north that had easier access to the mine.
Jemdat Nasr Period
The lapis lazuli trade transferred over to southern hands during this period and thus began a wider distribution of lapis lazuli in Mesopotamia. The monopoly changed hands presumably due to internal politics and a shift in power from Iran to Mesopotamia.
Early Dynastic I
During the first Early Dynastic period, the lapis lazuli trade came to an abrupt halt. Lapis lazuli was scarcely used in both Egypt and Sumer, but the reasons for this trade disruption remain a mystery.
Early Dynastic II
The lapis lazuli trade routes opened once again in the Early Dynastic II period. This development was of great significance to the civilizations in that age. The story was recorded, praising Enmerkar, the king of Uruk, as the reason for the re-establishment of regular lapis lazuli trade. After being refused lapis lazuli by the Iranian state of Aratta, Enmerkar used diplomatic and economic leverage to get them to consent. When Aratta faced a drought, Enmerkar agreed that Uruk would only supply Aratta with grain shipments if they agreed to begin shipments of lapis lazuli and other precious stones and metals. After this negotiation, lapis lazuli quickly became the most important and widely-used gemstone in the region.
Archaeologists have found beads, amulets, bottles, knife hilts, statues, tombs, temples, make-up, and even household items made from the beautiful and coveted gemstone. While lapis lazuli may not be in such common use today, it is certainly a lot easier to acquire. The blue stone truly comes with a wealth of history as a valued material even in prehistoric times.
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