Oracle bones inscriptions were some of the earliest forms of Chinese writing. Ancient Chinese characters were carved onto animal bones or tortoise shells before the advent of paper and ink writing systems. Oracle bones were generally used for religious purposes, such as spiritual divination, or for record keeping.
Oracle bone inscriptions date to the Shang Dynasty (1300 – 1046 B.C.). Little is known about this early period aside from what has been gleaned from bone inscriptions. In fact, some scholars even debated whether the Shang Dynasty had existed at all until bone inscriptions were found with Shang Dynasty ancestral records carved onto them, proving its existence. So, oracle bones have been extremely important in learning about this ancient era.
Wang Yirong was the first scholar to discover oracle bone inscriptions in 1899, although farmers had been unearthing them for decades prior. Before that time, inscribed bones were said to have healing powers and were bought and sold in traditional markets as “dragon bones”. They were crushed or powdered and used as oral treatment for ailments like malaria, which is how Wang Yirong came to find them at the turn of the century.
He was being treated for a severe case of malaria when he realized that some of his medicines were actually inscribed bones. As the first person to recognize the value in these bones, Wang is credited for their discovery.
To create the inscriptions, bones or shells were first cleaned, and then scraped and polished until smooth. Since most of the bones were used for divination purposes, the inscription process was part of a special ceremony that was performed at the request of the Shang rulers.
First, the bones were heated and then inscribed by carving relevant information, such as the date, diviner’s name, and the topics, which were usually related to calls for healing. Once heated, the bones cracked and the diviner interpreted the number, location and shape of the cracks. After the ceremony, the inscribed bones were thrown together into large pits and buried, where they were preserved for centuries until unearthing.
The rulers of the Shang Dynasty were very superstitious, so divination was a normal part of everyday life at that time. Hence, thousands or possibly millions of oracle bones were created and buried. It is probable that many of these bones perished as crushed medicines in the stomachs sick people before the turn of the century. Thankfully, this unfortunate loss has not deterred us from learning more about the elusive Shang Dynasty from the bones that have been found.