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Oracle Bones of Ancient ChinaOracle Bone Script

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Ancient Chinese oracle bones are pieces of bone or turtle shell bearing the oldest body of knowledge ever found in ancient Chinese writing. The Oracle bones,that have been found, contain text that sheds a lot of light on Ancient China. The bones date back to the end of the Shang Dynasty.

Until the oracle bones were discovered, it had never been proven that the Shang Dynasty ever existed.

Now around 150,000 oracle bones have been unearthed, many of them in Anyang. It has now been proven that the Yinxu ruins at Anyang were once the capital of the Shang Dynasty.


Oracle bones have been unearthed as early as the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD). The people who dug them up were, at the time, ignorant of their historical value. They were typically sold as dragon bones. They were commonly ground up and used as medicine. It is impossible to know how many oracle bones were destroyed this way.

Scholar Wang Yirong has been credited with being the first person to ever recognize the writing on the oracle bones as ancient Chinese. The story is that he recognized the writing in 1899 when he came down with malaria and was about to be treated with one of the bones. He and his friend, Liu saw the writing and stopped the doctor from grinding the bone into powder.

The text on the bones reveals that they were used as tools for divination. Ancient Chinese people of the Shang Dynasty used the bones to perform divinations for the Shang Kings. These acts of divination were usually performed by "diviners" and later by the kings themselves.

They were first anointed with blood. Then the date and the name of the diviner were written on the bone or bones. Then the question the king wished to have answered was posed and that too was written on the bone or bones.

The oracle bones had pits, varying in number, carved into them. The person performing the divination would place a heat source in these pits until the bone cracked. They would then "read" the cracks to divine the answer to the question being posed.

After the bone had been used, the ancient people would bury them in large groups. In 1936 a pit was found containing 17,000 oracle bones. They were uncovered near Anyang.

The oracle bones are one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever made in China. They have revealed many things about life in ancient China to archaeologists. Because the oracle bones were inscribed with their purpose we are given a really clear view into life during the Shang Dynasty. The ancient people of China unwittingly gave us a key to unlocking the past when they inscribed these bones and buried them.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 March 2011 01:30