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Mining Lapis in 1838

Last Updated: 6th Mar 2008

By Daniel Russell

Mining Lapis In The 19th Century: the narrative of Captain John Wood, explorer

In December 1838, while searching for the origin of the Oxus River (modern-day Amu Darya River) British explorer Captain John Wood (1812-1871) had the rather unique opportunity of examining the lapis lazuli mines of Sar-e-Sang in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. A native of Perth, Scotland, Wood had joined the British navy and demonstrated exceptional skill as a surveyor. After leading an exploration party up the Indus River by steamboat in 1835, he was given orders to explore the Oxus (Amu Darya) River. This afforded him a chance to view the native lapis lazuli mining operations at Sar-e-Sang. In recognition of his accomplishments as an explorer and cartographer, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Founder's Medal when he was only 29 years old.

Sar-e-sang lapis lazuli

Wood writes:

Where the deposit of lapis lazuli occurs, the valley of the Kokcha is about 200 yards wide. On both sides the mountains are high and naked. The entrance to the mines is in the face of the mountain, on the right bank of the stream, and about 1,500 feet above its level. The formation is of a black and white limestone, unstratified, though plentifully veined with lines. The summit off the mountains is rugged, and their sides destitute of soil or vegetation. The path by which the mines are approached is steep and dangerous, the effect of neglect rather than natural difficulties. The mountains have been tried for the lapis lazuli at various places; but the following is a section of the principal and latest worked mine:

"The shaft by which you descend to the gallery is about ten feet square, and is not so perpendicular as to prevent your walking down. The gallery is eighty paces long, with a gentle descent, but it terminates in a hole twenty feet in diameter and as many deep. The width and height of the gallery, though irregular, may be estimated at about twelve feet; but at some places where the roof has fallen in its section is so contracted that the visitor is forced to advance on his hands and knees. Accidents would appear to have been frequent, and one place in the mine is named after some unhappy sufferers who were crushed by the falling roof. No precaution has been taken to support by means of pillars the top of the mine, which, formed of detached rocks wedged together, requires only a little more lateral expansion to drop into the cavity. Any further operations can only be carried on at the most imminent risk to the miners. The temperature at the further end of the mine was 36º of Fahrenheit, while in the open air at its entrance it was 29º.

"The method of extracting the lapis is sufficiently simple. Under the spot to be quarried a fire is kindled, and its flame, fed by dry furze(1), is made to flicker over the surface. When the rock has become sufficiently soft, or to use the workmen’s expression, nurim, it is beaten with hammers, and flake after flake knocked off until the stone of which they are in search is discovered. Deep grooves are then picked out round the lapis-lazuli, into which crow-bars are inserted, and the stone and part of its matrix are detached.

The workmen enumerate three descriptions of ladjword. These are the Neeli, or indigo color; the Asmani, or light blue; and the Suvsi, or green. There relative value is in the order in which I have mentioned them. The richest colours are found in the darkest rock, and the nearer the river the greater is said to be the purity of the stone. The search for ladjword is only prosecuted during winter, probably because, labour in the mine being compulsory, the inhabitants are less injured by giving it in a season of comparative idleness than when the fields require their attention. Perhaps, also, during the cold of winter the rock may be more susceptible to the action of heat, and thus more easily reduced, than when its temperature is higher. Within the last four years Murad Beg(2) has ceased to work both the lapis-lazuli and ruby mines; and the reason assigned for his altered policy is the small success which has hitherto attended the operations. [Wood (1872)]

Wood adds the following footnote:
Pundit Manphul, a Hindu gentleman who was some years ago representative of the Panjab government in Badakhshan, mentions that the produce of these mines is now of a very inferior quality, and in quantity about thirty six poods(3) annually. The best quality sells at Bokhara at about thirty or sixty tillas (twelve or twenty four British Pounds) the pood. [Wood (1872)]

Abstracted from:

Wood, John (1872) A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus.
New Revised Edition, London 1872


(1) “Furze” is an evergreen shrub - DER

(2) Murad Beg and his father, Kohan Beg, were Uzbeki rulers who on at least two occasions over-ran that portion of Badakhshan in which the lapis mines were located, and deported much of the regional population to their capitol at Kunduz to serve as laborers - DER

(3) A pood is a Russian unit of weight equivalent to about 36 pounds. – DER

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