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oracle bones
CATEGORY: language; artifact
DEFINITION: The bones (usually shoulder blades) of oxen or tortoise under-shells used in the Shang culture of northern China for divination. Used to divine messages from ancestors, they are inscribed with either the question, answer, and/or name of the diviner. Oracle bones ordinarily record a question addressed by the Shang king to his deceased ancestors, or the response to the question, or even the ultimate outcome of the matter divined. The subjects of divination comprise a limited range of royal concerns. The Anyang kings asked chiefly about war, hunting, rainfall, harvests, sickness, their consorts' childbearing, the fortune of the coming week and, above all, sacrifices. They originated in the Lung-Shun culture and have been discovered at the Chou site of Qishan and Shang site of Anyang, dating to the late 2nd millennium BC. Anyang was the last capital of the Shang dynasty; apart from the far more limited corpus of inscriptions on bronze ritual vessels, the oracle texts are the only documents left by the Shang civilization. The depressions were made in bone and then a heated point was applied to cause bone to crack. Divination by interpretation of these cracks. The inscriptions are the earliest examples of the fully developed form of Chinese characters. Those deciphered from Anyang have helped reconstruct the Shang kinship system and aspects of the culture. These inscriptions preserve the earliest known Chinese writing and sometimes, by naming kings and ancestors, confirm the historical basis of early legends. A few examples have been found at Neolithic sites as Kexingzhuang (Dadunzi). The divination practice is called 'scapulimancy' (scapulae are shoulder blades).

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