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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Chinese
Title: Oracle bone with inscription
Date: Shang Dynasty, ca. 1200 - 1045 BC
Medium: Ox bone, carving, burn marks
Dimensions: 3 7/8 x 1 1/8 inches (9.8 x 2.9 cm)
Credit Line: George and Mary Rockwell Collection
Object Number: 88.002.248
Shang dynasty oracle bones were found near the capital Yin, near modern Anyang, Henan province. Farmers had been unearthing oracle bones for many centuries but usually reburied them. In the nineteenth century local people believed them to be dragon bones that had the power to cure diseases, so unearthed bones were ground up and ingested as medicine. In the late nineteenth century some Chinese scholars saw the bones and recognized their historical importance, a discovery that eventually led to the scientific excavation of the Shang dynasty royal tombs.

Oracle bones served as an important tool of shamanism, and were used in divination on behalf of the Shang dynasty rulers. These bones contain the earliest surviving examples of Chinese writing. Typically the phrases on oracle bones record the answers to questions asked to the spirits of ancestors and to the god Shang Di about what would happen in the future, such as predicting whether or not a harvest would be good, whether a military campaign would be successful, whether a son would be born to the king, etc. They also often contain the names of Shang kings and their lineages, and sometimes the names of shamans. Shamans performed the divination by poking the bone with a hot metal rod that would cause cracks and fissures to form. They would then “read” the cracks to divine the answers.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.