The cradle of mineralogy
From Prehistory to History
The history of mineralogy is as old as man. The history of mineralogy has been written by special stones and gems. Faith, magic, science; mystic therapy, magic therapy, physical therapy; belief in extra-natural powers and belief in the action of matter, all these are intimately bound up with the life that stones and minerals, and gems, in particular, had in the mentality of our ancestors.
The lapislazuli mineral or "gem" of a sky blue colour, permeated with magic and sacral meanings, was greatly appreciated and sought after ever since Neolithic times. From Mehrgarh in Pakistan, in the valley of the Indus, we possess lapislazuli specimen associated with turquoise and steatite that were found in contexts that cab dated to about 7000 BC
In Iran, at Tell-i-Bakun and about 4500 years BC, the local gem industry was cutting lapislazuli into cubic polyhedral stones with rounded edges.
In Mesopotamia, at Tepe Gawra, a centre of the Ubaid culture, lapislazuli made its appearance, together with turquoise, amethyst and beryl, round about 4500 BC in the form of stones that had been locally cut. From 3000 to 2000 BC the Sumerian civilization flourished here. Its advanced technology and passion for personal ornaments are attested by the treasure of gold and gems discovered in Ur between 1922 and 1934 by British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960). The minerals found in the graves were in majority objects of lapislazuli, carnelian and agate.
The cradle of mineralogy If it is true that the human race had its cradle in the East, it is equally true that the East provided mankind with precious stones to a far greater extent than the West. It is therefore only natural that the peoples of these regions (China and India, in particular) should have been the first masters to teach the others the value of these precious objects and also the originators of the idea of their magic and therapeutic virtues. China
In China these notions were being handed down for the most part in the oral tradition, because the religion of Confucius had always tried - at least officially - to keep all work of this kind at bay.
The material on which we have more information than any other is "jade" In the Far East, and in China in particular, pieces of jade were always the most appreciated minerals and laden with particular symbolic significance and authentic "cosmic" energy. The sacrality of "jades" was such as to confer upon them sovereignty and magic power, medicinal and taumaturgic powers; they also nourished the spirit and had the capacity of assuring immortality. The material used by the Chines was nephritic jade in various chromatic ranges that extend from candid whit to yellowish, to dark grey and havana, and right through to greenish yellow and intense dark green.
The greatest and most important deposits of nephrite of the ancient world were situated in the eastern part of Chinese Turkestan (Sinkiang), between the valleys of Yarkand and Khotan, along the northern counterforts of the Kuen-Lun range. Ever since Neolithic times, the alluvial deposits in Sinkiang had furnished pebbles and stones that Chinese production could convert into artistic objects.The search for the material was surrounded by an atmosphere of particular sacrality and was solely in the hands of women.
Jade ornaments of the so-called Songze culture (4000-3000 BC) are preserved in Peking's Chinese History Museum.In the Syro-Mesopotamian civilisations, on the other hand, as also in their Egyptian. Aegeo-Cretan, Greek, Phoenician, Etruscan and Roman counterparts, jade found only very exceptional. But even though there is a lack of documentation regarding the earliest times, there nevertheless exist more recent testimonies. Babylon
At the time of Mithridates there existed in Babylon a certain Zachelias, who wrote a book for that King in which he attributed the destiny of men to gems.Both the Assyrians and the Babylonians used small cylinders made of stones or minerals on which they incised the emblems, the symbols and the names they had chosen as their personal distinguishing marks. Egypt
The Egyptians turned their attention to precious stones rather early and studied them from every possible point of view. But they remained famous in the history of mineralogy on account of the fact that they were the first to make artificial imitations of gems and hard stones and were more skilful than any other people in the difficult art of incising them: an art that came to be known as glyptics. There exist many legends about marvellous stones with which the Egyptians associated supernatural virtues, but on the whole they are far too vague and legendary.
A reflection regarding the esoteric virtue of gems, or at least the high symbolic value that the Egyptians attributed to gems, can be found in the Book of Leviticus, where it is said that the Lord ordered the number and the quality of the stones that were to ornate the Rational (breastplate) of the Grand Priest.It is probable that this book of Moses reflects Egyptian notions brought by a legislator who was born and brought up at the court of the Pharaohs.
The principal fame of the Egyptians is however due to their glyptics, which already in times that we would call prehistoric had spread to Mycenae, Crete, Greece, and the Etruscans.
From Prehistory to HistoryThis series of peoples, i.e. the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Jews and the Iranians, clearly brings out the eastern mentality as far as the subject of gems and minerals is concerned. Until a particular epoch of history, this mentality remained limited to the regions in which it had been born and did not overstep the confines of the West.
Following the mixing of the various usages and the earliest travels, the different cultures came to be superposed and gave rise to what was a more or less unified culture in which it becomes difficult to search for the origin of individual ideas.But it was a characteristic of the earliest Western treatments of stones - be they sporadic or organised into tractates in the real sense of the term - that they considered minerals in a manner that can be said to be absolutely scientific, in line with the mental development of the age.
There thus came into being Eastern and Western lapidaries who differed by virtue of their mentality, though both followed a common guide thread.
The Lapidaries By his very nature, man has always been attracted by what is beautiful, precious and mysterious, and it is not therefore surprising that he should be interested in gems, which often have all these characteristics in common. In the course of the centuries the intrinsic value of these stones has become modified also as a result of external factors. Indeed, their rarity and beauty became supplemented by other characteristics that had their root in sciences other than mineralogy, with astrology and medicine particular cases in point. Though man?s past is characterised by great ignorance, his nature and his instinct have always led him to seek an answer to the various questions that arose in the course of time. Questions that were always to find an answer within the ambitof the world with which he was in contact: in nature, first of all and, whenever this proved insufficient, also in supernatural forces. We cannot say exactly where, how or why there came into being and developed the various human beliefs, but we can at least try to explain in what manner or wise they can be traced back to earthly objects in all the senses: the stones, in fact. The Eastern peoples were the first to know precious stones and to attribute magic virtues to them; virtues that could be found farmore readily in the fantasies of the learned of the times than in the gems as such. In any case, these properties remained impressed in goals of these peoples and the mysterious notions were handed down in the course of time by the greater part of the oral traditions, and often also in writing. Representative par excellence of these writings may be considered to be the so-called lapidaries.
The lapidaries are works that deal with stones and their manifold properties. According to the times in which they were written and the nationality of their authors, they may differ very widely in length, in scope and in structural criteria. In this connection one need do no more than think that at times they consist of no more than a few pages, whereas at others they are books in the proper sense of the term with contents that are inspired by magic, the occult sciences, or medicine. But what one is led to believe is that the lapidaries were similar - or at least could be traced back - to manuals, to texts of consultation for jewellers, jewellery lovers and even kings and princes, because in their case their health, the duration of their reign and the felicity of their people depended on the gems they had in their emblems. These texts did not at first come into being as organic and well defined works, but rather as collections of vague notions encountered especially in the poetry of India and Greece. Indeed, the earliest writings can hardly be considered as lapidaries, because in most cases the books in question deal with avery limited range of topics. With the passing of time and the evolution of civilisation, however, these texts assumed very definite forms, so much so that today one can speak of various types of lapidaries.
Eastern LapidariesThe eastern lapidaries, be they Chinese or Indian are fundamentally magical, even though they consider also other intrinsic virtues of stones, considering their commercial value, as well as their fine points and defects. Chinese Lapidaries
Information about gems can be found dispersed in the various books of all the epochs and all the dynasties of the Celestial Empire. Much of this information concerns the magic virtues of stones, but also the birth and the virtues of individual minerals.Indian Lapidaries
In markedcontrast with China, in India the magic and supernatural virtues of stones were handed down in written form, in books. Though the compilation of these books is comparatively recent, it is not possible to date the earliest ideas of Indian lapidaries. The Indians regarded knowledge of gems, as an art in the truest sense of the term and for them excelling in this field was a joy, just as being duly instructed in it was a duty for many categories of persons. The art was known as Ratnapariska and is mentioned as an honorific art already in the Hame Sutra, where one can find numerous references to the magic qualities of gems and the influence they exert on the fate of their possessor.Classical Lapidaries
But a different phenomenon can be observed in the Western classical lapidaries: while the more antique examples preserve a line objective, naturalistic, based on the natural characteristics of each stone, its places of origin and organoleptic qualities, which arrive as far as the therapeutic virtues of the stone in question, little by little as more recent epochs are approached, this scientific character gives way to a kind of mystique that attains its peak in the Byzantine lapidaries.The first tractate of mineralogy and gemmology that has come down to us is the lapidary attributed to Theophrastus - "Of stones" - written round about the year 315 BC, in which the author dwells particularly on the gems employed in glyptics during the classical period.
Theophrastus codifies the theories of Hippocrates and Plato relating to the mineral world, thus forming the first "groupings". He divides "stones" into males and females, giving rise to the theory of their reproduction, and attributes them some magical properties. There thus come to the fore the more typical attribute of the "stones", which are essentially magical, medicinal and therapeutic.
The passage from the Western classical mentality to the Alexandrine one is represented by Dioscorids lapidary entitled "Medical matter", which lists some 200 useful stones and gems, and the one due to Pliny the Elder which sets out the Eastern and Western beliefs in this field.
Alexandrine LapidariesHowever, the lapidaries of the pagan classical type undergo a considerable transformation as they pass through the Christian filter. Handled by the monks, they were cleansed of every magical phrase and any miraculous power that might be possessed by stones was referred solely to God. Thus transformed into a Christian vest, the classical lapidaries survived and provided even greater satisfaction for both the populace and the scholars. However, a third type of lapidary tended to come into being in the Alexandrine period: the glyptic lapidary. These were of Egyptian origin and very rare in Western literature. The works of this type did not concern themselves with the matter making up the gems, but simply considered the image that were carved in them and to which they attributed all the magic and mystic powers. In this connection ithas to be recalled that the Egyptians had been masters in carving stones to which they assigned mysterious powers. This tradition was preserved at Alexandria, where the so-called gnostic stones enjoyed particularly good fortune, i.e. stone on which therewere incised mysterious figures to which magic attributed arcane powers. The figures, carved in the manner of seals, could be astrologic, cabalistic or Christian signs. Everything was good and worthy for conferring the quality of a talisman upon a stone and thus comforting a believer.
The series of Arab lapidaries commenced in the seventh century with the so-called "Book of stones" by Jabir Ben Hayyan. From the scientific point of view, on the other hand, the most important are the ones due to Muhammad ibn Mansur written in the twelfth century, which classified stones according to their specific weight and hardness and described their varieties and places of origin, and "Flower thoughts on precious stones". by Ahmed Ben Jussuf Al Teifash, an Arab merchant, who in 1242 wrote a very interesting tractate on precious stones in which - for the first time ever in Western literature - he cited their prices in the markets of the Middle East The scale of prices at that time was as follows: ruby, emerald, diamond, topaz, spinel, sapphire, zircon, yellow corundum, beryl, turquoise, and almandine garnet.
The so-called Middle Ages saw a faithful continuation of what had been done in classical times and in the lapidaries of this period one finds the whole of the magic and the scientific philosophising characteristic of antiquity. Among the many medieval lapidaries, the supreme example is the one written in Latin hexameters by Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes, between 1067 and 1081 and then translated into Provencal, French, Italian, Spanish, Irish, Danish and Hebrew and Spanish.In Renaissance times the magical interpretation though not yet complete superceded, gradually gave way to a more scientific and become the modern mineralogy.