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Oracle Bones


Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone (National Palace Museum in Taipei)

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone (National Palace Museum in Taipei)

Denise Chan

Oracle bones are a type of artifact found in archaeological sites from the Shang Dynasty in China. The site of Anyang had over 10,000 of these objects, primarily ox shoulder blades and turtle shells carved with archaic forms of Chinese characters, used for divination between the 16th and 11th century BC. The Late Shang Dynasty Yinxu site also had an abundance of oracle bones.

Oracle bones were used to practice of a form of divination, fortune-telling, known as pyro-osteomancy. Pyro-osteomancy is when seers tell the future based on the cracks in an animal bone or turtle shell either in thei natural state or after having been burned. The cracks were then used to determine the future. The earliest pyro-osteomancy in China included the bones of sheep, deer, cattle, and pigs, in addition to turtle plastrons (shells). Pyro-osteomancy is known from prehistoric east and northeast Asia, and from North American and Eurasian ethnographic reports.

Of most interest to historians are the scratchings discovered on the surface of Shang dynasty oracle bones, which have been identified as precursors to Chinese characters. Oracle bones of the Shang dynasty were ox scapulae and plastrons only, and they had characters and holes drilled into them. Flad suggests that Shang dynasty may have incised the characters to "fix the future," such that by drilling holes and making marks before firing, the bone would crack in the "right" places.


The link below leads to a free abstract, but payment is needed for the full article.

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

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Also Known As: Ostraca (which is the term used for classical Greek pottery sherds with writing on them)
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