Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Osseous oracles

The historical importance of oracle bones (a.k.a. "dragon bones") to understanding Bronze Age China was not recognized until the 19th c. While others were grinding up the artifacts to use in traditional medicines, a collector and scholar was recording the inscriptions, which were published after his suicide. The British Library owns more than 400 of these divination tools, consisting mostly of ox scapulae or pieces of turtle shell and dating to between 1600 and 1050 B.C.E. Sara Chiesura, a specialist in Asian and African studies at the Library, explains, "Questions about crops, the weather or the royal family were engraved with a sharp object and the bone was then heated with metal sticks. Because of the heat, the bones would crack and the answers would be given by the diviners who interpreted the different shapes and the patterns of the fractures. The response was inscribed on the bone too. Most of the cracks produced by the heat on the reverse side of the bones appeared on the front side with a distinctive shape (├ ) from which comes the Chinese character for the verb 'to divine.'"

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