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The Shang Dynasty - What Are Oracle Bones? Guide for Keystage 2

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Go on then - what are Oracle Bones?

I'm glad you asked! Oracle Bones are animal bones that were used for divination (predicting the future) by people from the Shang Dynasty. People carved these bones with questions about the future and the cracks that formed on the bones after they had been heated would give them an answer, called a “prophesy”.

Tortoise Plastron Oracle Bone Shang Dynasty to divine prophesy about the future from the ancestors
A plastron from the underside of a tortoise. You can still see the cracks used to divine the future. Photo courtesy of BabelStone

So Oracle Bones are actual bones?

That’s right! They would need a large flat bone to write the carvings or “inscriptions” onto. They would often use the shoulder bone of an ox, called a scapula, or the shell from the underside of a tortoise, called a plastron.

Could anybody tell the future using an Oracle Bone?

No - divination using Oracle Bones was only performed by specialist “diviners”, who were often priests or advisors to the King. People who wanted to ask about the future would visit these diviners and pay them to get answers from the bones.

And the diviners actually wrote words on these bones?

Yes! In fact, the writing on the Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones is the earliest known form of Chinese writing.

The writing on the earliest Oracle Bones is quite different from what we use today though. Instead of full words and letters, the diviners would carve symbols to represent different things. For example, if you wanted to ask about the weather, you might draw a symbol of a sun, a raindrop, or a cloud. Over time this developed into the Chinese writing used today.

Shang Dynasty ox scapula oracle bone earliest known form of Chinese writing
Check out the symbols used on this ox bone. Can you tell what each symbol means? Photo courtesy of BabelStone

What questions did the diviners ask?

Historians have found all sorts of questions inscribed onto Oracle Bones. These questions include topics such as hunting, the harvest (and other food-related subjects – it’s very important to make sure people are fed!), going to war, travelling, trading, work, and even people’s love lives! Sometimes people would offer to make sacrifices to the gods to encourage a better answer.

Shang Dynasty ox scapula Oracle Bone burn marks divination
Check out the burn marks from the heated poker used on this Oracle Bone

So how did the Oracle Bones answer these questions? It’s not like they have mouths!

Good question. After the diviner had carved the asker’s question onto the bone, the bone would be heated. Sometimes this would involve placing the bone next to a fire, sometimes a hot poker would be placed into holes in the bone.

Either way, the application of heat to the bone would cause it to crack. Then the diviner would study the way the cracks spread across the symbols on the bone to interpret it into an answer.

This answer was considered a “prophesy” telling the asker some information about the future. It was then up to the asker as to whether or not they decided to follow the bone’s advice.

That's amazing!

I know right. What's even more interesting is that people in later dynasties ground up these Oracle Bones into a fine powder and sold them as medicine. On top of all that, they claimed that the powder was made from ground-up dragon bones!

Wow, I wish dragons were real!

Agreed! That would make my life complete.

A pit of Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones for divination
A pit of Oracle Bones discovered by archaeologists. That's a lot of prophecies! Photo courtesy of Chez Cåsver

So people in the Shang Dynasty really believed that the Oracle Bones could tell the future?

Well, no. Not the bones as such. They believed the answers came from their dead ancestors. Their ancestors knew what happened in the future because they now lived in the spirit world with the gods. So when the diviners inscribed questions onto the bones, they weren’t asking the bones, they were asking their ancestors. Ancestor worship is still part of modern Chinese tradition.

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone crack and burn holes
That's a pretty big crack down the centre of this Oracle Bone. How would you interpret that into a prophecy? It's harder than it looks!

So why are these Oracle Bones so important?

Oracle Bones are a really handy primary source for historians. A primary source is something that comes from the time in history that you are studying.

The writing carved into the bones goes into great detail. The diviners included the date, their name, and the name of the asker. They would carve a subject (EG "war"), followed by the question itself and the all-important answer. But they didn’t stop there. They would also include what happened next, whether the asker followed the advice and whether the prophecy turned out to be true.

The bones are so packed with information that historians have discovered loads of things about life in the Shang Dynasty. We wouldn’t have known these things without the Oracle Bones.

Can I try making my own Oracle Bones?

Yes! What a great idea!

You could make up your own form of symbol writing by using the pictures of carved Oracle Bones above for inspiration (why not check out our guide to writing your own Egyptian Hieroglyphs too?). Then carve your question into a pretend Oracle bone made out of clay.

We made up our own prophecy from an Oracle Bone below. You could copy our format to ask your own Oracle Bone questions.

Date: 2nd May 2022

Diviner: Laura

Question from: Adrian

Subject: Hunting

Question: Should I try to catch next doors cat with a fishing net?

Oracle Bone’s answer: No, that’s a really bad idea, you’ll probably end up being mauled by the cat.

Was the advice followed?: No.

Did the prophecy come true?: Yes.

What happened?: Adrian is now in the kitchen covered in scratches from a very angry cat. Laura is helping Adrian by giving him a heavy eye roll.

Make sure to share your creations with us online! We love to see them.

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