Oracle Bones

Historical texts sometimes take surprising forms. The earliest Chinese written records for instance are the “oracle bones” that were used in used in the art of “scapulimancy”, or bone divination, in Shang dynasty China (ca. 1600 -1046 BCE).

The language used on the oracle bones was rediscovered in 1899 by a Chinese scholar named Wang, who was stunned to realize that the piece of “dragon bone” he had purchased to pound into medication was inscribed with what looked like a primitive form of Chinese writing. Wang’s discovery gave scholars information on Shang dynasty history that didn’t appear in official dynastic histories. (Including the story of general Fu Hao (d. ca.1200 BCE) who flourished and fought to defend the Shang dynasty—the earliest woman warrior I know of for whom we have a name and a story. )

Royal diviners used the shoulder blade of an ox or the bottom shell of a turtle to help Shang aristocrats seek the advice of their ancestors or other supernatural beings. (In fact, they seem to have preferred using turtle shells. But “oracle turtles” lacks a certain gravitas in English.) The diviner inscribed his questions on its surface, exposed the bone or shell to heat, and interpreted the resulting cracks for answers. They asked for forecasts regarding weather,* and crops. They asked about the outcome of hunting trips, travel, military campaigns and childbirth. They questioned when certain kinds of religious ceremonies should be performed and what their dreams meant.

Now those questions give us a glimpse into the lives and concerns of people long gone. Lots of glimpses. Chinese archaeologists have excavated roughly 100,000 examples from fifteen separate sites near Anyang, the site of the Shang capital. Who knows how many thousands of inscribed oracle bones were pounded into powder for medicine before Wang rediscovered their purpose?

*Some human concerns are constant across the millennia.

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