An extremely rare CHINESE ORACLE BONE, measuring 4 * by 2 * inches (120 mm by 55 mm), from Xiaotun, the site of nearly all known oracle bones, near the ancient capital of the Late Shang Dynasty of Anyang.
The oracular use of bones involved the interpretation of the pattern of cracks that appeared in the bones after subjection to extreme heat by the application of a heated bronze rod (the oracle bones predate the use of iron in China). The written text records the interpretation of the oracle and the date of its writing. Although some of the signs used on the bones are found as early as 4500 B.C. in ownership inscriptions on jade and pottery, the oracle bones are the first preserved evidence of the use of Chinese script in complete, meaningful sentences. They are thought to date from the 14th to the 12th century B.C. and to have belonged to a royal archive of oracular records.
An explanation of the evolution of Chinese script is given in Hammond, Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology: “Inscriptions on Chinese oracle bones (used for divination) of c.1400-1200 B.C. are written in a fully developed script whose structural principles still underlie that in use today, despite superficial variations. Four basic types of script units (characters) occur: pictographs, more or less stylized representations of concrete objects; differentiated pictographs, in which a marker indicates a portion of a pictograph; pictographic compounds, two or more pictographic elements combined to show the action or influence of one on the other; and phonetic compounds in which two elements, chosen respectively from acts of semantic and phonetic signs are combined, giving a broad indication or meaning and pronunciation. The last is by far the most productive group, accounting for some 90% of characters in existence today. The total number of characters has grown from [about] 9,000 in A.D. 100 to [about] 60,000 today, of which 3,500 to 4,000 are in common use.”
The present example was exported from China prior to 1950, the year the Chinese State took over the excavation site at Xiaotun and prohibited any other examples from leaving China.
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