Asian Studies

The Backside of the Bones

An osteological study of Shang oracle bones (13th and 12th century BCE)

Bone from the Edinburgh collection
A world famous bone from the Edinburgh collection mentioning the female royal general Fu Hao with her troups of 3000 men.
Principal Investigator
Professor Joachim Gentz
Research Assistant
Antoine Ruchonnet

Lifting the veil of the future has been a concern for humans from the omens of ancient Mesopotamia to computer generated horoscopes. Among the many methods to predict an ever changing fate, Shang divination is outstanding in its sophistication, elegance, and organisation.

In the late second millennium BC China, divination was controlled by the king who acted as an intermediary between humans and the realm of the ancestors and gods. The Shang dynasty monarchs were making predictions about the outcome of battles, the weather, childbirth, the cause of sickness and how to cure it, etc. Those prophecies were based on the interpretation of controlled cracks that were produced on bovid scapulae and turtle plastrons. By adding heat on complexly prepared bones, the thermal shock cracks the osseous tissue in a 卜-shaped form.

A turtle plastron
A turtle plastron with the inscription of a military divination held at the Museum of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei

Once the king interpreted the cracks and made his prediction, the questions together with the prognostications were carved into the bone for record keeping. These inscriptions are the earliest testimonies of Chinese writing and for that reason were extensively studied in the past century after they were discovered in 1898. The archaeological potential of the bones as artefacts that reflect divinatory techniques, was only scarcely analysed. With its ca 1800 pieces, the National Museum of Scotland holds the largest collection of Shang oracle bones in Europe, the second largest outside of Asia.

This project aims to look at the backside of the bones in this collection, at their carved grooves and drilled hollows, to study this neglected face of the bones with modern, non-invasive and non-destructive techniques to understand how the divinatory cracks were made, how the Shang diviners achieved such control over them, and what preparation the bones were submitted prior to their use.

Using X-Ray Fluoroscopy, Stereomicroscopy, Scanning Electron Microscopy and Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy, Photogrammetry along with archaeological investigative techniques, the bones are being analysed, looking for tool marks and chemical residues of tool applications. We are building an exhaustive database, with all the data collected, photographs, transcriptions and translation of the inscriptions, as well as 3D models.

In parallel, we are conducting some experiments to recreate the controlled cracks by first preparing different kind of bones in various ways and then applying a whole range of heat sources in varying degrees of heat to them. Producing cracks in bones is not difficult, but to produce controlled cracks in exactly the 卜-shape that we find on thousands of Shang oracle bones requires highly sophisticated techniques.

The research is a collaboration between the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures and the School of History, Classics & Archaeology from the University of Edinburgh and the National Museum of Scotland. It has been fully funded by the Challenge Investment Fund.