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Oracle Bones in East Asia

Tracing the Spread and Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Ancient East Asia

Project Abstract

Oracle bones — animal bones used for pyro-osteomantic divination rituals in East Asia — are one of the most important types of bone artifacts in Chinese Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and the source of inscriptions containing the earliest writing in ancient China. Although these inscriptions are the focus of most research, oracle bone use far pre-dates the inscribed examples and continues after they were a primary medium for writing. Uninscribed oracle bones are rarely published and there is a lack of metric data available for studying spatial and temporal trends in oracle bone manufacture and use. In the Oracle Bone Project, we are reviewing collections of oracle bones housed in institutions across China in order to collect comprehensive data on the types of animal bones used in divination, the methods of oracle bone manufacture, and the archaeological contexts in which the bones are found. Our goal is to trace the origins of oracle bone divination rituals, their spread across Asia during the Neolithic, and the ultimate development of oracle bone divination as a central part of Shang Dynasty royal religious practices. The project brings new zooarchaeological and technological perspectives to research on oracle bones and addresses Anthropological questions about the role of ritual technologies in household and state-level institutions.

Data collected as part of the Oracle Bone Project is published on Open Context in a multi-language open access format. The raw data can be used by researchers around the globe to examine temporal and spatial trends in oracle bone manufacturing and use. Our focus is on uninscribed cases that have not received as much scholarly attention, but we encourage other scholars and institutions to upload additional data from inscribed or uninscribed oracle bones in their own collections. All contributions are associated with a publication record that is fully citable, searchable, downloadable in multiple formats, and linked to data standards that facilitate interoperability. Data input forms in English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are coming soon!

The Oracle Bone Project is an international collaboration between the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (IA CASS) and Harvard University.The project co-PIs are Katherine Brunson (Wesleyan University), Rowan Flad (Harvard University Department of Anthropology), and Zhipeng Li (Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences).

Suggested Citation

Katherine Brunson, Zhipeng Li, Rowan Flad. (2016) "Oracle Bones in East Asia". Released: 2016-04-04. Open Context. <> DOI:

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