Oracle Bones of the Ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty

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Kelly Macquire
published on 17 August 2022

Oracle bones or dragon bones were the shoulder blades of oxen or the flat underside of a turtle shell known as a plastron that were used for divination during the Shang Dynasty of China which dates between c. 1600 and 1046 BCE. The bones were carved with symbols, the symbols eventually became words and it was from these that the Chinese script developed from.

A psychic or fortune teller would carve symbols into the bones or turtle shell, then they would either apply a hot poker to the object or place it next to a fire until it cracked and from the direction of the crack, their future would be predicted. Although some oracle bones have been found from the Zhou Dynasty, most of them are dated to the Shang dynasty, the period of Chinese history when oracle bones were used most regularly.

Since the oracle bones were written or carved on with such detail, stories that were initially thought to be myths about the Shang Dynasty - such as people’s wealth, occupations, trade goods, and cultural values - were able to be verified by scholars. Chinese writers in later dynasties referred to the Shang Dynasty as a kind of golden age, and the oracle bones showed modern-day scholars that they had certainly had a good reason to.



0:00​ Introduction
1:03 What are Oracle Bones?
3:32 The Use of Oracle Bones
5:57 The Importance of Oracle Bones
7:54 Outro

Oracle Bones
Shang Dynasty
Chinese Writing
Ancient China
Zhou Dynasty

An Introduction to the Dynasties of Ancient China
The Lives of Women in Ancient China
History of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival
Wu Zetian: the First and Only Empress of Imperial China
The Silk Road: Trade Route of the Ancient World

You can find all attribution and credits for images, animations, graphics and music here -

The music used in this recording is the intellectual copyright of Michael Levy, a prolific composer for the recreated lyres of antiquity, and used with the creator's permission. Michael Levy's music is available to stream at all the major digital music platforms. Find out more on:

CC BY SA 3.0
Popolon - own work
CC BY SA 4.0

World History Encyclopedia

#oraclebones #shangdynasty #ancientchina

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About the Author

Kelly Macquire
Kelly is a graduate from Monash University who has completed her BA (Honours) in Ancient History and Archaeology, focussing on iconography and status in Pylos burials. She has a passion for mythology and the Aegean Bronze Age.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Macquire, K. (2022, August 17). Oracle Bones of the Ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Macquire, Kelly. "Oracle Bones of the Ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 17, 2022.

MLA Style

Macquire, Kelly. "Oracle Bones of the Ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 17 Aug 2022. Web. 24 Jul 2024.