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The Chinese Oracle Bone

This is the oldest object featured so far on our Blog. It dates from 1192BC and, if rumours are to believed, it is made of dragon bone.

I encountered this oracle bone first in the basements of the British Library. That may not sound like the most romantic venue, but the purpose of my visit was clear: to identify items that were suitable for display in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Along with the conservator and curator, we pulled out the drawers which housed the precious fragments of bone, and then carefully removed some of those that seemed most visually appealing or were in the best condition.

This is not always the case with Chinese oracle bones, since they were always broken deliberately at the time they were made. In order to predict the future, whether the crops would grow or the kingdom would be victorious in war, the diviner would inscribe their question on the bone. This would then be heated through the application of a metal rod, causing the bone to crack, and thus enabling the diviner to make their prediction. Intriguingly, modern forensic scientists have tried to replicate this process but without huge success. We are still unsure to some degree how the fissures in these oracle bones were created.

As we were choosing the best candidates for our exhibition, this particular dragon bone came to light. The curator explained that it was one of the oldest, datable items held in the British Library's collections, and immediately I appreciated that it had a wonderful story to tell. It is written with the Shang Dynasty script, the oldest known form of Chinese writing and the ancestor of the characters still used today. The diviner had enquired about the coming ten-day period and had forecasted that there was to be no bad luck, undoubtedly to the satisfaction of everyone involved. But how do we know that this object is so old?

The answer is provided by a separate inscription on the reverse, in which someone recorded a lunar eclipse that was visible in the night sky of central China between 21.45 and 23.30 on 27 December 1192BC. Those timings have been verified by NASA, no less. Whoever recorded the eclipse did so in such detail that it can be dated with such a degree of accuracy. It's a real gateway to the past, to the traditions of a lost culture that paid great heed to the movement of the stars.

We duly selected this oracle bone (Or 7694/1595) for the Divination section of our Harry Potter exhibition, where it sat alongside a crystal ball owned by a witch named Smelly Nellie and a spooky scrying mirror, whose owner warned, 'If you should see anybody standing behind you in the mirror, whatever you do, you must never turn round'. You can still view the dragon bone for yourself on the Google Arts and Culture Harry Potter: A History of Magic site. And you can even explore it on 3D on Sketchfab.

At the beginning we mentioned that this item was possibly made of dragon bone. That is, alas, unlikely to be true. The oracle bone most probably comes from the shoulder-blade of an ox. No dragons were harmed in the writing of this blogpost.

Why not read Karen Eeckman's play inspired by this item, The Dragon Bones, set in 1192BC and starring a diviner and a female general defending her land from attack? It's available now on Voices from the Vault.

Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels

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