Great archaeological discoveries are sometimes made after years of careful research and organized searching, and sometimes purely by chance. The case of oracle bones is different again. Their existence had been known for hundreds of years, but their significance was only unlocked about 100 years ago. In that respect there are similarities with the decipherment of other ancient writing systems such as cuneiform script from the Middle East and Egyptian hieroglyphs, but oracle bones are different again.
Farmers in the area of the ancient Shang capital, Anyang, had been digging these bones up in their fields for centuries and selling them to traditional Chinese pharmacists as dragon bones to be ground up for use in special medicines. Their secrets only began to be uncovered when, by chance, one of the bones in its original state fell into the hands of a Chinese scholar, who realised its importance.
Early writing used today
The writing scratched on oracle bones is the earliest identifiable system of Chinese characters. Some of the characters found on these bones are still in use virtually unchanged today, more than 3000 years later. The script has a vocabulary of over 30,000 characters many of which are variants of about 4000 base characters, around half of which have so far been deciphered. They are pictographic in origin but have passed the stage of direct representation and are a fully-formed language able to convey abstract ideas. This degree of sophistication tells us that they are already an evolved form of writing. Any earlier signs have either not yet been discovered or were written on more fragile material than bone and have not survived the passage of time.
The next stage in the development of Chinese writing was the casting of sometimes quite long inscriptions on the inside of bronze ritual vessels. These recorded when the vessel was made, who it was made for and when and how it was used.
Their use and significance
This particular oracle bone is part of the shoulder blade of an ox. Bones from other animals such as horses, pigs and deer have also been found, along with a considerable number of plastrons or undersides of tortoise shells. First, shallow pits were drilled in one side of the bone; the questions to be answered were then written in red ink on the other side and a heated metal spike was applied to the pits. Priests answered the ruler’s questions on matters of state and ritual by interpreting the way the bone cracked.
Oracle bones were used only by priests or diviners in the service of the ruler and from them we can tell what ritual and political matters were of importance at the time. Questions asked on the bones range from matters of high state such as the right time to go to war or fight a battle, to the correct way to perform certain rituals. They may be concerned with the health of the ruling family on issues as varied as whether the ruler’s consort would give birth safely and what was causing the ruler’s toothache. Commonly, questions were asked to do with forecasting the weather. Although this may seem trivial, in fact it is a clear illustration of the importance of agriculture and the harvest to the stability of the dynasty.
Oracle bones, together with other archaeological finds of the period, including the magnificent ritual bronze vessels, allow us to build a picture of the upper levels of Shang society – see Object File: A bronze vessel from Shang China. The continuity of development of Chinese characters from oracle bones to the present day, as with the designs and shapes of the ritual bronzes, support the Chinese claim to have the longest continuous civilisation in world history.
Chinese oracle bones
Short article on oracle bones.
Dragon bones video
Video about oracle bones. Watch particularly 0:17-2:35; 5:37-6:57; 7:36-9:43.
Decoding chinese ancient scripts
Video about the deciphering of oracle bones.
Oracle bones lecture
12 minute lecture on oracle bone script and Chinese characters.
Article on Chinese scripts showing changes from ancient to modern.
Shang Dynasty videos
This video in two parts is from China Central Television, and provides an overall introduction to the Shang Dynasty for teachers. A sequence on oracles bones and writing starts at 9:25 in the first video and runs to 3:33 in the second.
Introduction to early Chinese civilisation
Summary of the Shang Dynasty
Timeline of the Shang Dynasty