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Consulting the Ancient Chinese Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty

a photo of a scrap of bone with chinese characters scraped into it

Oracle bone records sacrificial offering of 500 oxen before a military attack. Ox scapula or tortoise plastron, Yinxu site, Anyang, Henan Province, China, late Shang dynasty c1200–1050 BC

Let’s consult the oracle… National Museum of Scotland explores a fascinating collection of Chinese oracle bones

For reasons yet to be fully understood, the ancient Chinese practice of oracle bone divination fell into obscurity with the demise of the earliest dynasty of traditional Chinese history supported by archaeology, the Shang Dynasty (c.1200–1050 BC).

Yet for much of the second millennium BC the inscribed animal bones were the go-to source for guidance and divine insight from the ancestors and deities, providing insights into anything from military strategy and crop failure to the cause of the King’s toothache.

Prepared by cleaning, carving and drilling, the bones would be heated intensely causing them to crack. The pattern of the cracks would then be read and interpreted by a diviner. The questions asked were often also inscribed onto the bones along with the diviner’s interpretations, providing us with valuable insight into the concerns of the time and even the beginnings of a Royal genealogy that stretches deep in to beginnings of Chinese civilization.

These scratched inscriptions are also examples of the earliest-known Chinese script.

a photo of woman holding a scrap of bone in a gloved hand

Curator of Chinese collections Dr Qin Cao photographed with oracle bone © National Museums Scotland

Over 3000 years after their demise, 19th century farmers began unearthing them. They soon came to be known as ‘dragon bones’ with healing powers and many of them were ground up and used in medicine.

It was not until the late 1800s that the true nature of the ‘dragon bones’ was recognised. Reportedly Wang Yirong, a prominent scholar of the time, was prescribed medicine containing ‘dragon bones’ when sick with malaria.

He was said to have noticed the similarities between the bones’ inscriptions to those on early bronze artefacts. Further research confirmed that the bones were inscribed with the earliest-known form of Chinese writing, the root of Classical Chinese.

These inscriptions remain a source of interest for researchers today. Around 5000 individual characters have been identified to date, but only a third of these have been deciphered so far.

“They provide examples of the earliest-known forms of Chinese writing, as well as offering an insight into the beliefs and politics of ancient China,” says Dr Qin Cao, Curator of Chinese Collections at National Museums Scotland. “The practice of divination is something that still captures public imagination to this day as evidenced by its prevalence in modern culture, notably in the popular series of Harry Potter.”

The exhibition includes 40 objects that explore the phenomena of oracle bone divination and track the evolution of early forms of Chinese writing to its present-day form, including a Banliang coin dated third century BC.

New research on the oracle bones divination process from a joint project between National Museums Scotland and the University of Edinburgh also examines residue traces and tool marks on the bones and aims to recreate the conditions that would result in a crack.

Often made from ox scapulae or turtle plastrons, it is thought the oracle bones were subjected to intense heat via a metal rod, which caused them to crack due to thermal expansion.

a photo of a piece of animal bone with Chinese writing on it

Oracle bone enquiring about the rain in relation to farming – Ox scapula or tortoise plastron, Yinxu site, Anyang, Henan Province, China, late Shang dynasty c1200–1050 BC.

In Edinburgh the bones are displayed alongside contemporary Chinese objects associated with the divine, such as a bronze tortoise shell and coin set used for fortune telling.

Parallels are drawn with popular Western practices, such as tarot card reading, to demonstrate the universal human need to manage the unknown and find meaning in a time of need or uncertainty.

Purchased in 1909 from missionaries Samuel Couling and Frank Chalfant, the bones in National Museums Scotland’s collection numbers over 1700 – making it the second-largest collection outside of East Asia.

Taken together with the Chinese Bronze Age archaeological record the bones are key to studying the Shang Dynasty and the objects such as those on display may yet play a part in further uncovering the mysteries of the ancient past.

Chinese Oracle Bones is at National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh from October 25 2019 – Sunday March 29 2020. Admission is free.


National Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh, Lothian

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