Oracle Bones

In our lecture on the ancient Chinese State we briefly discussed Oracle bones; I found these items very interesting and wanted to do further research on them to get a greater understanding of their use and significance. In my research I came across quite a bit of interesting information about the bones that I wanted to share with those who might not know much about them.

Oracle bones are pieces of shell or bone, typically from ox scapulae or turtle shells due to their flat surfaces. They were used in as a form of divination in ancient China, mainly during the late Shang dynasty. The bones were used in a ritual where diviners would inscribe questions to deities regarding many things some of which being questions about: future weather, crop planting, military endeavors, and similar topics. The questions were carved onto the bone or shells using a sharp tool in a language known as oracle bone script. The process of carving used a metal rod put under intense heat and was applied to the bone or shell until it cracked due to thermal expansion.  The pattern of cracks would be interpreted by the diviner for meaning.  Later in time the preferred writing method became using cinnabar ink and brush to write on the bones which results in a lot of bones being unearthed blank.

The oracle bones are important because they bear the earliest form of ancient Chinese writing and contain historically important information. From oracle bones scholars have learned the complete royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty. In my research I learned that the Shang-dynasty oracle bones are thought to have been unearthed periodically by local farmers as early as the Sui and Tang dynasties. However, local inhabitants probably did not realize what the bones were and probably reburied them. In the 19th century, local villagers digging in the fields found the bones and used them as “dragon bones”.  Dragon bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine practice and are ground up Pleistocene fossils used in tonics and poultices. Turtle shell fragments were prescribed for malaria and other animal bones were used in a powdered form to treat knife wounds. The importance of oracle bones was first realized in 1899, when an antiques dealer from the Shangdong Province searching for Chinese bronzes in the areas acquired many oracle bones from locals and sold many to the chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. The chancellor was very knowledgeable of Chinese bronzes and is thought to be the first person in modern times to realize the oracle bones’ markings were an ancient Chinese writing.

As I researched oracle bones further they became more and more interesting to me, everything from their preparation to how they were used in practice.  They give us a written record of history in a form that isn’t seen anywhere else in the world. And all the mystery that surrounds them makes them that much interesting to learn about.

2 thoughts on “Oracle Bones

  1. Sam Miller

    I agree with you, oracle bones are very interesting. All the facts that you found are very intriguing, but I wonder if they are correct. There seems to be a lot of contradicting information about oracle bones and I think that the media is to blame.
    For example, in the movie Stardust (2007) oracle bones were used to answer yes and no questions. The oracle bones looked as if they were human phalanges (finger bones), although they were flattened. One side of each bone (there were 5) was marked with some kind of writing that was symbol-like and the other side of the bone was completely bare. In the movie, the oracle bones were used for divination means through the answering of the yes and no questions asked.
    In Stardust, the bones looked human and in your blog post you said that oracle bones were “pieces of shell or bone, typically from ox scapulae or turtle shells”, which contradicts each other. In the lecture, Professor Watrall said that the questions were written on the bone, so this is another difference between the presented facts and the movie facts. And yet another difference is that oracle bones were used in ancient China, while in the movie they were used in England.
    Another movie that uses divination means, is the movie 300 (2006). King Leonidas seeks the word of the Oracle before going to war against the Persians. Although the Oracle (Oracle of Delphi) is not exactly the same as oracle bones, there are some similarities. Both are forms of divination and have similar names. On the other hand there are many differences as well: one has writing on it, the other does not; one is a human, the other bone or shell.
    And that’s another thing I want to know about the oracle bones (sorry for jumping around here, but this is where my mind is taking me), why are they named ‘oracle bones’ if they are made of bone OR shell? It doesn’t make sense to have a name for something if it isn’t made out of what it’s named after (again, sorry if that was a confusing sentence). Perhaps scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists, will never figure out the answer to my question. Only time will tell…

  2. Mel Walker

    I also found the oracle bones to be very interesting. I was surprised by the amount of historical information that could be gleaned from them. I would have assumed that oracle bones would provide good insight into the ideology and beliefs of ancient Chinese culture, but I would not have guessed their importance in written history. They are an unusual and unique source of information. It makes me wonder what other sorts of artifacts may be useful in ways other than the expected. Oracle bones show the importance of looking at artifacts with an open mind about what we can learn from them. The material culture that is left behind is often our only hint towards the lives of past people, so we have to get as much information from them as possible.

    It is also interesting to see a bit of the process that oracle bones went through before their importance was recognized. It is unfortunate that they were used in ways that damaged or destroyed them before their archaeological importance was uncovered. I’m a little surprised that it took until 1899 for their importance to be recognized. They are an unusual source of information, to be fair, but it still is odd to me that the importance of the writing on them wasn’t acknowledged significantly before. Part of it could be the difference in archaeological approaches between then and now. The written aspect of oracle bones probably benefits from the more modern goal of understanding every aspect possible of a culture.

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