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Students in ARCP291: East Asian Archaeology
Attempt to Recreate Oracle Bone-Burning Process

Fall 2022

Report by Juliette Vemmer ('25)

Oracle bone divination was a practice popular within the dynastic culture of ancient China, particularly the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 BCE). Some of the most common bones used include cattle scapulae and turtle shells. After the cleaning and carving of the bones, diviners (often the ancient kings) would burn the bones and then read and interpret the cracks. It is unknown how these bones were interpreted, such as whether they were interpreted based on the shape or direction of the crack, or the sound of the cracking. However, archaeologists can study the inscription of the divination record on the bone itself in order to learn about ancient religious practices. The divination process assured the authority of the ancient kings, and it allowed for communication with the ancestors. Making sacrifices to the ancestors would help ensure favorable outcomes for the world of the living. 

In fall 2022, the students in ARCP291 East Asian Archaeology taught by Professor Kate Brunson attempted to recreate the oracle bone-burning process. The class fired wooden sticks and used them to burn holes on cow and sheep scapula. The class was able to make a small crack in the sheep scapula, however, they struggled to produce any cracks in the thicker cow scapula. This process helped students learn about the intricacies and difficulties of the oracle bone-burning process.