The Hidden Messages from the Ancient Chinese Civilization --- Oracle Bone Inscriptions

Dates: 12 June, ~31 December, 2006
Oracle bone inscriptions (or Jia-Gu-Wen) are the ancient Chinese characters carved on tortoise shells and animal scapulas (shoulder blades). The oracle bone inscriptions were mainly used for divination and keeping records of events happened in the late Shang Dynasty (~1300 BC - 1050 BC).

The significance of the discovery of the oracle bone inscriptions

(1) The discovery of the inscriptions verifies the existence of the ancient Shang kingdom, and historians regain their trust in the classical Chinese historical documents.

Before the discovery of the oracle bone inscriptions, the major historical records of the Shang Dynasty are based on_the Shiji (Historical Records) (《史記》) of Sima Qian(司馬遷), who lived in the days of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 25) and was generally regarded as the father of Chinese historiography. However, the lack of archaeological evidences causes many scholars to doubt the reliability and credibility of this account. The discovery of oracle bone inscriptions provides the first scientific verification of Sima Qian's historiography and proves the existence of the Shang Dynasty.

(2) The excavations of the Ruins of Yin become a major event of world archaeology in 20th century, and inaugurate the new era of scientific archaeological research in China.

3) The discovery of the inscription challenges the traditional views of Chinese etymology.
The major work for the study of Chinese etymology before the discovery of the oracle bone inscriptions is Shuowen Jiezi (《說文解字》) compiled by Xu Shen (許慎, c.A.D. 58-c. A.D. 147). This work is the first etymological Chinese character dictionary, as well as the first to organize the characters by shared components. The appearance of the oracle bone inscriptions challenges the framework provided by Xu Shen, and call for a new paradigm as well as reform in the study of Chinese etymology.

The archaeological sensation in 1936 -- excavation of the Pit YH127 at Xiaotun

The current exhibition is held especially to commemorate the 70th anniversary of this marvelous archaeological event. During the excavations in 1928-1937 by the Academia Sinica, the most decisive breakthrough is the discovery from the Pit YH127 in 1936. The oracle bones with inscriptions unearthed out of this pit amount to 17,096 pieces. This achievement is unprecedented, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, in the entire history of archaeological research on oracle bones to date. The excavated objects from YH127 possess unique characteristics that are not found in other places. Some glyphes found in the YH127 are brush-written on tortoise shells, which are the earliest records of human handwriting found in Chinese history. The variety and abundance of evidence from YH127 provide a solid and invaluable material foundation for the ongoing scientific exploring of the unknown Shang civilization.


Inscribed Bovid Bone I–pien 8672

Resource Identifier:R043689
Resource Type:Material: Bovid Bone
Description:This is one of the few inscribed mammal bones unearthed in Pit YH127. This divination is about sacrificial rituals, hunting expeditions, crop harvesting, and rain. It might have been a piece used for practice.
Date:Late Shang Dynasty
Format:Length 22.8 cm、width 17.7cm
Coverage:YH127,Hsiao-T'un, Anyang, Honan, China
Oracle Bone (Turtle Plastron) I-pien 566

Resource Identifier:R026611
Resource Type:Material: Turtle bone
Description:The ink remains of Shang. One of the engraved graphs is missing. Inferring from the most commonly seen topic in divination, the missing part could be the graph for “rain”. The divination should be about whether or not “it will rain this evening”.
Date:Late shang dynasty
Format:Length 3.3cm, width 2.2cm
Coverage:YH127,Hsiao-t'un, Anyang, Honan, China
Oracle Bone (Turtle Plastron) Ping-pien 001

Resource Identifier:R043986
Resource Type:Material : Bovin bone
Description:Divination sentences which were inscribed using the double-carved technique have thicker strokes, and were more similar to the original writings in appearance than those inscriptions using the single-carved technique. This is a divination concerning the outcome of a military campaign.
Date:Late Shang Dynasty
Format:Length 28.6cm、width 20.5cm
Coverage:YH127, Hsiao-t'un, Anyang, Honan, China
Oracle Bone (Turtle Plastron) I-pien 5167

Resource Identifier:R038044
Description:「人固」 on the bottom half is 「大固」with missing horizontal carvings 。
Date:Late Shang Dynasty
Format:Length 10.7cm、width 7.5cm
Coverage:YH127, Hsiao t'un, Anyang, Honan, China
Oracle Bone (Turtle Plastron) I-pien 5241

Resource Identifier:R044772
Resource Type:Material: Turtle Bone
Description:A reshaped turtle carapace. This is a piece of oracle bone mainly concerning rain and the harvesting of crops.
Date:Late Shang Dynasty
Format:Length 12.9cm、width 6.8cm
Coverage:YH127, Hsiao-t'un, Anyang, Honan, China



Text and images are provided by Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

Digital Resources and Archived Images Application