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Oracle Bones: A 3,000-Year-Old Voice of the Dead

Shang Dynasty oracle bone (via British Library)
Shang Dynasty oracle bone (via British Library)

While dating back 3,000 years, no one recognized how special the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty were until 1899. Yet the antiquarian who first perceived the value of the artifacts, etched with Chinese characters summoned by crackling the bones over a fire to speak to the dead, would commit suicide shortly after.

Shang Dynasty oracle bone (via British Library)
Shang Dynasty oracle bone (via British Library)

Now the divination tools have made their way into museums and collections around the world, including the British Library, where they are the oldest objects in the institution. Recently, Sara Chiesura, a specialist in Asian and African studies at the library, shared some of the details of the strange history and rediscovery of the oracle bones. The library’s over 400 bones — mostly ox scapulae (shoulder blades) or turtle plastrons (the flat part of the shell) — were used between 1600 and 1050 BCE.

As Chiesura explains:

Questions about crops, the weather or the royal family were engraved with a sharp object and the bone was then heated with metal sticks. Because of the heat, the bones would crack and the answers would be given by the diviners who interpreted the different shapes and the patterns of the fractures. The response was inscribed on the bone too. Most of the cracks produced by the heat on the reverse side of the bones appeared on the front side with a distinctive shape (├ ) from which comes the Chinese character for the verb “to divine.”

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, oracle bones were regularly ground up for Chinese medicine. It wasn’t until Wang Yirong, a collector and director of the Chinese Imperial Academy, brought attention to this record of the Bronze Age that their significance was recognized. Unfortunately, Wang’s place in the Boxer Rebellion as a commander culminated in his suicide, and a friend named Liu E posthumously published the oracle bone inscriptions he’d amassed.

Now there is a whole archaeological study dedicated to this “osteomancy” especially as the bones confirm historical records through their inscribed of names of royal leadersAccording to the Metropolitan Museum, the “Bronze Age Chinese held extraordinarily different ideas about kingship and religion from Medieval Europe” as they “believed the king’s right to rule was based on his good relations with the spirits of his ancestors who controlled the destiny of the domain.” So regularly using the bones to evoke the approval of your dead kin was essential to confirming your power.

Peter Hessler, who published Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China in 2007, wrote for the New Yorker:

Excavated bones reveal that the Shang inquired about everything from warfare to childbirth, from weather to illness. They asked about the meaning of dreams. They negotiated with the dead: on one bone, an inscription proposes sacrificing three human prisoners to an ancestor, and then, presumably after an unsatisfactory crack, the next inscription offers up five prisoners. Sometimes the Shang sacrificed hundreds of people at once.

The oldest objects in a museum or library can say a lot about that institution, setting just how far back its historical identity reaches. Oracle bones, these curious messages conjured from a spiritual fire, are a voice of the dead echoing through the evolution of language and its power.

Shang dynasty oracle bone, showing the ├ shaped cracks (via British Library)
Shang dynasty oracle bone, showing the ├ shaped cracks (via British Library)

Read more about oracle bones at the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog

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