Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > East Asian Collections > 14. Oracle Bone

14.  Oracle Bone. China, Shang Dynasty, ca. 1300-1050 BCE. Scapula, (11.4 cm. x 18 cm.) C. V. Starr East Asian Library

An image of this bone is seen in countless textbooks as an example of the earliest Chinese writing. Dating from about 1300 to 1050 bce, it is a fine example of an authentic oracle bone. Questions of moment to the ruler and his people, about weather related to agriculture, about marriages of importance to the state, and about sacrifices important to the order of the world, were scratched onto the surfaces of bones or shells. Then heat was applied, and by the cracks on the surface, the diviner could read the answers of Heaven. These bones were unearthed by farmers and came to be known only at the turn of the last century. Together they provide information about the life of the ruling class of the Shang dynasty, some 3,250 years ago. Columbia's collection of oracle bones is an important one, donated over the first half of the twentieth century by a number of scholars and collectors.

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