Edinburgh Research Explorer

Analysis and reconstruction of the production of controlled divinatory cracks in Shang Dynasty oracle bones from the 13th and 12th century BCE held in the National Museum of Scotland

Project: University Awarded Project Funding

StatusFinished
Effective start/end date1/01/1629/06/16
Period1/01/1629/06/16

Description

Shang Dynasty oracle bones from the 13th and 12th centuries BC are most famous for their inscriptions, which represent the earliest form of Chinese writing. Yet, the bones primarily served as tools of divination of which the inscriptions were records. Divination was carried out by applying heat to hollows drilled into the back of the bones and thereby producing controlled cracks on the front side that were interpreted by the Shang king to predict the future. Since their discovery in 1899, oracle bone research has mainly focused on decoding the inscriptions, and it is still not fully known how exactly the cracks were produced. Since 1909 the National Museum of Scotland holds the biggest collection (1800 pieces) of Shang Dynasty oracle bone fragments in Europe. This project is aiming to combine Sinological knowledge and technical expertise of Forensic Anthropology to systematically study for the first time the process of producing divinatory cracks in Shang dynasty oracle bones. After recording, analysing and classifying the hollows and burn marks on the bones of the Scottish Collection a series of experiments will be attempted in order to reconstruct the process of controlled application of heat to the oracles for their use in divination ceremonies.