Oracle Bones

Oracle Bone image

How to seek a prediction: Find an expert interpreter who can crack bones with heat, and interpret the cracks’ meanings

(Sample) Equipment: animal bone or shell (often a turtle plastron, instrument to apply extreme heat)

Personnel: trained expert in bone burning

Oracle bones -- animal bones used for pyro-osteomantic divination rituals in East Asia -- are one of the most important types of bone artifacts in Chinese Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and the source of inscriptions representing the earliest written texts in ancient China. Pyro-osteomancy is, in general, a process where #randomized cracks appear in a bone after it is heated by fire, or a hot poker, and the pattern of cracks is interpreted by a #human expert. Typically, in ancient China, some inscription is made on the bone after the ceremony, recording what might, or did, happen. Although these inscriptions remain the focus of most research, oracle bone use far pre-dates the inscribed examples and continues after they were a primary medium for writing.

According to published data, the earliest oracle bones in China come from sites in northern China that date to the late 4th millennium BCE. Between the late 3rd millennium and late 2nd millennium BCE, oracle bone divination became increasingly specialized and focused on a limited variety of animal taxa as it was associated with individuals and institutions that held positions of power in early Chinese polities.

Based on the inscriptions on the Bronze Age oracle bones from the site of Yinxu in Anyang, Henan, we know that the burning of these bones was a central part of a system of prognostication that was associated with decision making by the royal court of the Shang Dynasty. We can further infer that the other examples of oracle bones that are not inscribed represent divination practices in various contexts in early China, and represent the significant role that divining practices had in helping people make sense of the dynamic and unpredictable world within which they lived.

Chinese Bone Burning (Part 1)

Chinese Bone Burning (Part 2)

Chinese Bone Burning (Part 3)

Meet the Expert: Professor Rowan Flad

The expert in the Diviner's Guide for Chinese bone burning is Professor Rowan Flad, the John E. Hudson Professor of Archaeology in the Harvard Department of Anthropology. Professor Flad's research focuses on late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Chinese archaeology and anthropolohy, and he has gone on numerous excavations and digs in China. His most recent book is Ancient Central China: Centers and Peripheries along the Yangzi River (Case Studies in Early Societies).

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