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Oracle bone

unknown1250 - 1192 BC

Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum

The ancient Chinese believed that a spirit resided in bone, and that this spirit not only had the ability to foretell the future but was willing to help people by answering their questions. Bone divination began in China in about 3400 BC, but was not practised on a significant scale until seven or eight hundred years later. To judge from archaeological evidence, it reached its peak during the Shang dynasty. At least 100,000 pieces of inscribed bone have been found dating from that period. Before Shang times, bones from a variety of larger mammals - oxen, sheep, deer, and even humans - were used. The royal Shang court, however, preferred ox scapulae and tortoise shells, and used them almost exclusively. Before a bone could be used for divination, it had to be treated in a special manner so that it would crack when heat was applied to it. This process was kept secret from ordinary people. The answer to the question asked by the diviner was determined by the pattern formed by the crack. Recent experiments have revealed that if a bone is not treated properly, it is almost impossible to obtain a crack. We know from ancient records, and from customs which have survived to the present, that when a divination was performed a verbal agreement was first reached with the spirit of the bone concerning the meaning to be attached to the pattern of the crack. Heat was then applied to the bone and the crack formed. The answer to the question was deduced from the crack in accordance with the agreement made previously with the spirit of the bone. Modern testing has shown that the direction of the crack can be controlled; thus, the outcome of a divination could be manipulated. Today, it is probably commonly thought that bones do not have the power to foretell the future. Yet, for unknown reasons, there are very few recorded examples of erroneous predictions. The inscription on this bone is, in fact, the only obvious example so far found. It reads as follows: "[Will all go well if] Shi is called upon to inspect the army at Youshi?" The king read the omen and said, "The older, the wiser. There will be no obstacle on the road." But this prognostication actually indicated a harmful outcome. After twenty-eight days, on the renyin day, Shi died in the evening.

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Details

  • Title: Oracle bone
  • Creator: unknown
  • Date: 1250 - 1192 BC
  • Location: China
  • Provenance: The George Crofts Collection
  • Type: Oracle Bone
  • Rights: Royal Ontario Museum
  • Medium: Ox scapula, inscribed, with traces of red pigment (cinnabar)
  • Time period: Shang Dynasty
  • Accession Number: 920.77.1

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