Oracle bones are pieces of shell or bone, normally from ox scapulae or turtle plastrons, which were used for pyromancy – a form of divination – in ancient China, mainly during the late Shang dynasty. Diviners would submit questions to deities regarding future weather, crop planting, the fortunes of members of the royal family, military endeavors, and other similar topics. These questions were carved onto the bone or shell in oracle bone script using a sharp tool. Intense heat was then applied with a metal rod until the bone or shell cracked due to thermal expansion. The diviner would then interpret the pattern of cracks and write the prognostication upon the piece as well. By the Zhou dynasty, cinnabar ink and brush had become the preferred writing method, resulting in fewer carved inscriptions and often blank oracle bones being unearthed.
The oracle bones bear the earliest known significant corpus of ancient Chinese writing and contain important historical information such as the complete royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty. When they were discovered and deciphered in the early twentieth century, these records confirmed the existence of the Shang, which some scholars had until then doubted.
The vast majority of the inscribed oracle bones date to the last 230 or so years of the Shang dynasty; oracle bones have been reliably dated to the fourth and subsequent reigns of the kings who ruled at Yin (modern Anyang)—from king Wu Ding to Di Xin. However, the dating of these bones varies from ca. the 14th to 11th centuries BCE, to ca. 1200–1050 or more BCE because the end date of the Shang dynasty is not a matter of consensus. The largest number date to the reign of king Wu Ding. Very few oracle bones date to the beginning of the subsequent Zhou Dynasty.
The Shang-dynasty oracle bones are thought to have been unearthed periodically by local farmers since as early as the Sui and Tang dynasties and perhaps starting as early as the Han dynasty, but local inhabitants did not realize what the bones were and generally reburied them. During the 19th century, villagers in the area digging in the fields discovered a number of bones and used them as "dragon bones" (Chinese: 龍骨; pinyin: lóng gǔ), a reference to the traditional Chinese medicine practice of grinding up Pleistocene fossils into tonics or poultices. The turtle shell fragments were prescribed for malaria, while the other animal bones were used in powdered form to treat knife wounds.
In 1899, an antiques dealer from Shandong Province searching for Chinese bronzes in the area acquired a number of oracle bones from locals, several of which he sold to Wang Yirong, the chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. Wang was a knowledgeable collector of Chinese bronzes and is believed to be the first person in modern times to recognize the oracle bones' markings as ancient Chinese writing similar to that on Zhou dynasty bronzes. A legendary tale relates that Wang was sick with malaria, and his scholar friend Liu E was visiting him and helped examine his medicine. They discovered, before it was ground into powder, that it bore strange glyphs, which they, having studied the ancient bronze inscriptions, recognized as ancient writing. As Xǔ Yǎhuì states:
"No one can know how many oracle bones, prior to 1899, were ground up by traditional Chinese pharmacies and disappeared into peoples' stomachs."
It is not known how Wang and Liu actually came across these "dragon bones", but Wang is credited with being the first to recognize their significance. Wang committed suicide in 1900 in connection with his involvement in the Boxer Rebellion, and his son later sold the bones to friend Liu E, who published the first book of rubbings of the oracle bone inscriptions in 1903. News of the discovery of the oracle bones spread quickly throughout China and among foreign collectors and scholars, and the market for oracle bones exploded, though many collectors sought to keep the location of the bones' source a secret. Although scholars tried to find their source, antique dealers falsely claimed that the bones came from Tangyin in Henan. In 1908, scholar Luo Zhenyu discovered the source of the bones near Anyang and realized that the area was the site of the last Shang dynasty capital. Decades of uncontrolled digs followed to fuel the antiques trade, and many of these pieces eventually entered collections in Europe, the US, Canada and Japan. The first Western collector was the American Rev. Frank H. Chalfant, while Presbyterian minister James Mellon Menzies (明義士) (1885–1957) of Canada bought the largest amount. The Chinese still acknowledge the pioneering contribution of Menzies as "the foremost western scholar of Yin-Shang culture and oracle bone inscriptions." His former residence in Anyang was declared a "Protected Treasure" in 2004, and the James Mellon Menzies Memorial Museum for Oracle Bone Studies was established.
By the time of the establishment of the Institute of History and Philology headed by Fu Sinian at the Academia Sinica in 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Anyang in Henan Province. Official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 led by Li Ji, the father of Chinese archaeology, discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, which now form the bulk of the Academia Sinica's collection in Taiwan and constitute about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions on the oracle bones, once deciphered, turned out to be the records of the divinations performed for or by the royal household. These, together with royal-sized tombs, proved beyond a doubt for the first time the existence of the Shang Dynasty, which had recently been doubted, and the location of its last capital, Yin. Today, Xiǎotún at Anyang is thus also known as the Ruins of Yin, or Yinxu.
The oracle bones are mostly tortoise plastrons (ventral or belly shells, probably female) and ox scapulae (shoulder blades), although some are the carapace (dorsal or back shells) of tortoises, and a few are ox rib bones, scapulae of sheep, boars, horses and deer, and some other animal bones. The skulls of deer, oxen and humans have also been found with inscriptions on them, although these are very rare and appear to have been inscribed for record keeping or practice rather than for actual divination; in one case, inscribed deer antlers were reported, but Keightley (1978) reports that they are fake. Neolithic diviners in China had long been heating the bones of deer, sheep, pigs and cattle for similar purposes; evidence for this in Liaoning has been found dating to the late fourth millennium BCE. However, over time, the use of ox bones increased, and use of tortoise shells does not appear until early Shang culture. The earliest tortoise shells found that had been prepared for divinatory use (i.e., with chiseled pits) date to the earliest Shang stratum at Erligang (Zhengzhou, Henan). By the end of the Erligang, the plastrons were numerous, and at Anyang, scapulae and plastrons were used in roughly equal numbers. Due to the use of these shells in addition to bones, early references to the oracle bone script often used the term "shell and bone script", but since tortoise shells are actually a bony material, the more concise term "oracle bones" is applied to them as well.
The bones or shells were first sourced and then prepared for use. Their sourcing is significant because some of them (especially many of the shells) are believed to have been presented as tribute to the Shang, which is valuable information about diplomatic relations of the time. We know this because notations were often made on them recording their provenance (e.g., tribute of how many shells from where and on what date). For example, one notation records that "Què (雀) sent 250 (tortoise shells)", identifying this as, perhaps, a statelet within the Shang sphere of influence. These notations were generally made on the back of the shell's bridge (called bridge notations), the lower carapace, or the xiphiplastron (tail edge). Some shells may have been from locally raised tortoises, however. Scapula notations were near the socket or a lower edge. Some of these notations were not carved after being written with a brush, proving (along with other evidence) the use of the writing brush in Shang times. Scapulae are assumed to have generally come from the Shang's own livestock, perhaps those used in ritual sacrifice, although there are records of cattle sent as tribute as well, including some recorded via marginal notations.
Preparation and usage
The bones or shells were cleaned of meat and then prepared by sawing, scraping, smoothing and even polishing to create convenient, flat surfaces. The predominance of scapulae and later of plastrons is also thought to be related to their convenience as large, flat surfaces needing minimal preparation. There is also speculation that only female tortoise shells were used, as these are significantly less concave. Pits or hollows were then drilled or chiseled partway through the bone or shell in orderly series. At least one such drill has been unearthed at Erligang, exactly matching the pits in size and shape. The shape of these pits evolved over time and is an important indicator for dating the oracle bones within various sub-periods in the Shang dynasty. The shape and depth also helped determine the nature of the crack that would appear. The number of pits per bone or shell varied widely.
Since divination (-mancy) was by heat or fire (pyro-) and most often on plastrons or scapulae, the terms pyromancy, plastromancy and scapulimancy are often used for this process. Divinations were typically carried out for the Shang kings in the presence of a diviner. A very few oracle bones were used in divination by other members of the royal family or nobles close to the king. By the latest periods, the Shang kings took over the role of diviner personally.
During a divination session, the shell or bone was anointed with blood, and in an inscription section called the "preface", the date was recorded using the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, and the diviner name was noted. Next, the topic of divination (called the "charge") was posed, such as whether a particular ancestor was causing a king's toothache. The divination charges were often directed at ancestors, whom the ancient Chinese revered and worshiped, as well as natural powers and Dì (帝), the highest god in the Shang society. A wide variety of topics were asked, essentially anything of concern to the royal house of Shang, from illness, birth and death, to weather, warfare, agriculture, tribute and so on. One of the most common topics was whether performing rituals in a certain manner would be satisfactory.
An intense heat source was then inserted in a pit until it cracked. Due to the shape of the pit, the front side of the bone cracked in a rough 卜 shape. The character 卜 (pinyin: bǔ or pǔ; Old Chinese: *puk; "to divine") may be a pictogram of such a crack; the reading of the character may also be an onomatopoeia for the cracking. A number of cracks were typically made in one session, sometimes on more than one bone, and these were typically numbered. The diviner in charge of the ceremony read the cracks to learn the answer to the divination. How exactly the cracks were interpreted is not known. The topic of divination was raised multiple times, and often in different ways, such as in the negative, or by changing the date being divined about. One oracle bone might be used for one session or for many, and one session could be recorded on a number of bones. The divined answer was sometimes then marked either "auspicious" or "inauspicious", and the king occasionally added a "prognostication", his reading on the nature of the omen. On very rare occasions, the actual outcome was later added to the bone in what is known as a "verification". A complete record of all the above elements is rare; most bones contain just the date, diviner and topic of divination, and many remained uninscribed after the divination.
The uninscribed divination is thought to have been brush-written with ink or cinnabar on the oracle bones or accompanying documents, as a few of the oracle bones found still bear their brush-written divinations without carving, while some have been found partially carved. After use, shells and bones used ritually were buried in separate pits (some for shells only; others for scapulae only), in groups of up to hundreds or even thousands (one pit unearthed in 1936 contained over 17,000 pieces along with a human skeleton).
Archaeological evidence of pre-Anyang pyromancy
While the use of bones in divination has been practiced almost globally, such divination involving fire or heat has generally been found in Asia and the Asian-derived North American cultures. The use of heat to crack scapulae (pyro-scapulimancy) originated in ancient China, the earliest evidence of which extends back to the 4th millennium BCE, with archaeological finds from Liaoning, but these were not inscribed. In Neolithic China at a variety of sites, the scapulae of cattle, sheep, pigs and deer used in pyromancy have been found, and the practice appears to have become quite common by the end of the third millennium BCE. Scapulae were unearthed along with smaller numbers of pitless plastrons in the Nánguānwài (南關外) stage at Zhengzhou, Henan; scapulae as well as smaller numbers of plastrons with chiseled pits were also discovered in the Lower and Upper Erligang stages.
Significant use of tortoise plastrons does not appear until the Shang culture sites. Ox scapulae and plastrons, both prepared for divination, were found at the Shang culture sites of Táixīcūn (台西村) in Hebei and Qiūwān (丘灣) in Jiangsu. One or more pitted scapulae were found at Lùsìcūn (鹿寺村) in Henan, while unpitted scapulae have been found at Erlitou in Henan, Cíxiàn (磁縣) in Hebei, Níngchéng (寧城) in Liaoning, and Qíjiā (齊家) in Gansu. Plastrons do not become more numerous than scapulae until the Rénmín (人民) Park phase.
As for pyromantic shells or bones with inscriptions, the earliest date back to the site of Erligang in Zhengzhou, Henan, where burned scapulae of oxen, sheep and pigs were found and one bone fragment from a pre-Shang layer was inscribed with a graph (ㄓ) corresponding to Shang oracle bone script. Another piece found at the site bears ten or more characters that are similar to the Shang script but different in their pattern of use, and it is not clear what layer the piece came from.
Post-Shang oracle bones
After the founding of Zhou, the Shang practices of bronze casting, pyromancy and writing continued. Oracle bones found in the 1970s have been dated to the Zhou dynasty, with some dating to the Spring and Autumn period. However, very few of those were inscribed; these very early inscribed Zhou oracle bones are also known as the Zhōuyuán oracle bones. It is thought that other methods of divination supplanted pyromancy, such as numerological divination using milfoil (yarrow) in connection with the hexagrams of the I Ching, leading to the decline in inscribed oracle bones. However, evidence for the continued use of plastromancy exists for the Eastern Zhou, Han, Tang and Qing dynasty periods, and Keightley mentions use in Taiwan as late as 1972.
A fairly recent connection between divination and turtle shells (carapaces, rather than plastrons) was attested by Soame Jenyns in Guangdong in 1930. According to his report, fortune tellers would place three cash into the carapace, shake them, and then throw, repeating the process three times; the heads/tails results would then be used as a basis for telling one's fortune.