Oracle Bones - Predicting the Future in Shang Dynasty, China

What Can Oracle Bones Tell Us about the Ancient Chinese Past?

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone
Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone. Lowell Georgia / Getty Images

Oracle bones are a type of artifact found in archaeological sites in several parts of the world, but they are best known as a significant characteristic of the Shang dynasty [1600-1050 BC] in China.

Oracle bones were used to practice a specific form of divination, fortune-telling, known as pyro-osteomancy. Osteomancy is when shamans (religious specialists) divine the future from the pattern of the natural bumps, cracks, and discolorations in animal bone and turtle shell.

Osteomancy is known from prehistoric east and northeast Asia and from North American and Eurasian ethnographic reports.

Making an Oracle Bone

The subset of osteomancy called pyro-osteomancy is the practice of exposing animal bone and turtle shell to heat and interpreting the resulting cracks. Pyro-osteomancy is conducted primarily with animal shoulder blades, including deer, sheep, cattle and pigs, as well as turtle plastrons--the plastron or undercarriage of a turtle being flatter than its upper shell, called the carapace. These modified objects are called oracle bones, and they have been found in many domestic, royal and ritual contexts within Shang Dynasty archaeological sites.

The production of oracle bones is not specific to China, although the largest number recovered to date are from Shang Dynasty period sites. Rituals describing the process of creating oracle bones were recorded in Mongolian divination manuals dated to the early 20th century.

According to these records, the seer cut a turtle plastron into a pentagonal shape and then used a knife to incise certain Chinese characters into the bone, depending on the seeker's questions. A twig of burning wood was repeatedly inserted into the grooves of the characters until a loud cracking noise was heard, and a radiating pattern of cracks produced.

The cracks would be filled with India ink to make them easier for the shaman to read for important information about the future or current events.

History of Chinese Osteomancy

Oracle bones in China are much older than the Shang Dynasty. The earliest to date related use are unburned tortoise shells incised with signs, recovered from 24 graves at the early Neolithic [6600-6200 cal BC] Jiahu site in Henan province. These shells are incised with signs which have some similarity to later Chinese characters (see Li et al. 2003).

A Late Neolithic sheep or small deer scapula from inner Mongolia may be the earliest divination object recovered yet. The scapula has numerous intentional burn marks on its blade and is dated indirectly from carbonized birchbark in a contemporaneous feature to 3321 calendar years BC (cal BC). Several other isolated finds in Ganzu province also date to the late Neolithic, but the practice did not become widespread until the beginning of the Longshan dynasty in the latter half of the third millennium BC.

The patterned carving and scorching of pyro-osteomancy began somewhat haphazardly during the early Bronze Age Longshan period, accompanying a significant increase in political complexity.

Evidence for early Bronze Age Erlitou (1900-1500 BC) use of osteomancy is also present in the archaeological record, but like Longshan, also relatively unelaborated.

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones

The shift from generalized use to elaborate ritual took place over hundreds of years and was not instantaneous over the entire Shang society. Osteomancy rituals using oracle bones became most elaborate during the end of the Shang era (1250-1046 BC).

Shang Dynasty oracle bones include complete inscriptions, and their preservation are key to understanding the growth and development of the written form of the Chinese language. At the same time, oracle bones came to be associated with an expanded number of rituals. By Period IIb at Anyang, five main annual rituals and many other supplemental rituals were conducted accompanied by oracle bones.

Most significantly, as the practice became more elaborate, access to the rituals and the knowledge derived from the rituals became restricted to the royal court.

Osteomancy continued to a lesser degree after the Shang Dynasty ended and up into the Tang era (A.D. 618-907). See Flad 2008 for detailed information about the growth and change of divinatory practices with oracle bones in China.

Practice Engraving: Oracle Bone Workshops 

Divination workshops are known at Anyang in the late Shang (1300-1050 BC) period. There, 'practice-engraved divination records" have been found in abundance. The workshops have been characterized as schools, where student scribes used the same writing tools and surfaces (i.e., the uninscribed portions of used divination bones) to practice everyday writing. Smith (2010) argues that the main purpose of the workshops was divination, and education of the next generation of diviners simply took place there. 

Smith describes curricula that started with ganzhi (cyclical) date tables and buxún ("divining for the week ahead") records. Then the students copied more complex model texts including actual divination records as well as specially composed practice models. It appears that the Oracle Bone Workshop students worked with the masters, at the place where divination was performed and recorded. 

History of Oracle Bone Research

Oracle bones were first identified in the late 19th-century, at archaeological sites such as Yinxu, a late Shang Dynasty capital near Anyang.

Although their role in the invention of Chinese writing is still being debated, research into the large caches of oracle bones has demonstrated how the script developed over time, the structure of the written language, and the variety of topics about which the Shang rulers required divine advice about.

Over 10,000 oracle bones were found at the site of Anyang, primarily ox shoulder blades and turtle shells carved with archaic forms of Chinese calligraphy, used for divination between the 16th and 11th century BC. There is a bone artifact-making workshop at Anyang which apparently recycled sacrificial animal carcasses. Most of the objects produced there were pins, awls, and arrowheads, but the shoulder blades of the animals are missing, leading researchers to surmise this was a source for oracle bone production elsewhere.

Other research on oracle bones is focused on the inscriptions, which do much to enlighten scholars about the Shang society. Many include the names of Shang kings, and references to animal and sometimes human sacrifice dedicated to natural spirits and ancestors.

Sources

Campbell Roderick B, Li Z, He Y, and Jing Y. 2011. Consumption, exchange and production at the Great Settlement Shang: bone-working at Tiesanlu, Anyang. Antiquity 85(330):1279-1297.

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Childs-Johnson E. 2012. Big Ding and China Power: Divine Authority and Legitimacy. Asian Perspectives 51(2):164-220.

Flad RK. 2008. Divination and power: A multiregional view of the development of oracle bone divination in Early China. Current Anthropology 49(3):403-437.

Li X, Harbottle G, Zhang J, and Wang C. 2003. The earliest writing? Sign use in the seventh millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan Province, China. Antiquity 77(295):31-43.

Liu L, and Xu H. 2007. Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology. Antiquity 81:886–901.

Smith AT. 2010. The evidence for scribal training at Anyang. In: Li F, and Prager Banner D, editors. Writing and Literarcy in Early China. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p 172-208.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Oracle Bones - Predicting the Future in Shang Dynasty, China." ThoughtCo, Feb. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/oracle-bones-shang-dynasty-china-172015. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, February 13). Oracle Bones - Predicting the Future in Shang Dynasty, China. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oracle-bones-shang-dynasty-china-172015 Hirst, K. Kris. "Oracle Bones - Predicting the Future in Shang Dynasty, China." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oracle-bones-shang-dynasty-china-172015 (accessed December 16, 2017).