Friday, October 18, 2019

Oracle Bones and Dragon Bones

By Nancy J. Farrier

What are Oracle Bones? What are Dragon Bones? There aren’t dragons except in fantasy books, right? What do these have to do with history?

Shang Dynasty Scapula
By Babelstone
Wikimedia Commons
Oracle bones first came into use in the Shang Dynasty of China, or that is the earliest they have been traced. Back then, if someone wanted to find out their future, or to get a hint what their deity wanted, they would go to a fortune teller to ask their question and hope to get an answer.

The fortune teller would carve the question into a piece of bone. The preferred bones to use were the scapula, or shoulder bone, of an ox and the plastron, or undershell, of a female tortoise. (The female was preferred because the underside of the shell was flat instead of the more curved shape found in the male’s shell.) 

Tortoise Shell Plastron
By BabelStone
Wikimedia Commons
The inquiry was carved into the prepared piece of bone and the bone placed near a firepit to gather heat. Sometimes a hot poker was used on the bone instead of the proximity to the blaze of the fire. The shell was heated until it cracked. Once a crack formed, the fortune teller could see the answer in the way the crack ran through the question. Then the person would know what to do.

What questions might be asked? Should I take my crop to market now? Should I find a wife for my son? Should I sell my cow? Any question they had where they needed direction, would be fair to ask on an oracle bone. Most of those inquiries came from the wealthier class.

Once the answer was received, and often interpreted by the king, the answer and date were also carved into the bone fragment and kept. Some were tossed into a pit with other oracle bones, which were later dug up and the practice, long forgotten, was discovered again.

Wang Yirong
Wikimedia Commons
So, what are dragon bones? In 1899, Wang Yirong, the Chancellor of the Imperial Academy, became ill. He was sent for treatment, and the treatment of choice at that time was ground up dragon bones. Dragon bones were said to have magical properties for healing and had been used for years. They were a common treatment. 

The dragon bones given to Wang Yirong were not properly ground up and still had larger pieces of bone mixed in. Wang and a friend began to examine the bone fragments. They were astonished to find ancient Chinese writing on the pieces. They hurried back to the apothecary and got more of the dragon bones. From there, the excitement spread and they began searching for more of the bones, which were found to be from oxen and turtles, not dragons.

Oracle Bone Pit
By Chez Cåsver
Wikimedia Commons
It is thought these were some of the earliest of Chinese writings and they show how the Chinese figures used today developed. Not only are they important in the development of the language, but they also have information on the history of the early dynasties that had been lost. 

The records on the bones were very exact. The information would start with the date the question was asked. Next would come the actual question and then the answer would be recorded. Also, they would include if the answer turned out to be correct or not. 

Incomplete Bone
Wikimedia Commons
In the incomplete bone at the right, a diviner asks the Shang king if there would be misfortune over the next ten days. The king replied that he had consulted the ancestor Xiaojia in a worship ceremony. The answer is not included on the bone fragment.

From the oracle bones, historians have discovered many facts. Information about the king’s court, about cities and taxes, the types of crops and trade, marriages and customs. Many of the bones have been found and recovered. The earlier bones hold the best information because they were carved and not written on with ink, which would decline over the years and fade. 

Have you ever heard of an oracle bone? Have you ever seen one? I find them fascinating and would love to have the opportunity to see these in person even if I can’t decipher what they say. What an interesting find.

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. Very interesting! I'd hate to pin my destiny on whichever way a bone cracked!! Thanks for the post!

    1. I agree, Connie. But this is fascinating and I loved that there is so much history from their careful records.

  2. Wow! So interesting, Nancy! Thanks for sharing. Can't say I have ever heard of oracle bones!

    1. Thank you, Debbie Lynne. I hadn’t either until my daughter shared the story with me.