Research Project


The Spread and Social Significance of Scapulimancy in Early China during the Western Zhou period (ca. mid-11th-early 8th cc. BCE)

PD Dr. Maria Khayutina

Osteo-pyromancy, or pyro-osteomancy, is the technique of divination by applying heat to pre-treated bones of animals to produce cracks that a diviner interpreted as an oracle. In China, its heyday was during the Late Shang dynasty (ca. 1300-1046 BCE), when trained ritual specialists regularly performed prognostication ceremonies on behalf of the king. Osteo-pyromancy was also practiced at the court of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), but it gradually declined as other techniques such as yarrow-stalks divination received more recognition.
Whereas the finds of thousands used oracle media near royal palaces or temples witness that the highest political elite intensively engaged in prognostication activities, oracle bones and turtle shells are frequently found in other parts of settlements - usually, among the ground deposits or in waste pits. The contexts of these finds may reveal, what kind of people engaged in osteo-pyromancy, and, if this practice spread to broad social circles, what it was used for beyond political decision-making.
During my stay in Erlangen, I was able to reveal one previously unknown aspect of osteo-pyromancy: namely, its relationship with craftsmanship.
Used oracle bones have been quite regularly found during the excavations of bronze foundries. They were attested on several foundry sites in the Late Shang (1300-1046 BCE) capital in Anyang, Henan province, and near a bronze foundry in Laoniupo in Shaanxi province (ca. 1500-1050 BCE). Most recent excavations of bronze-casting workshops in Huanbei Shang city in Anyang and in Taijiasi in Anhui province, both dated to Middle Shang period's (1400-1300 BCE), have revealed oracle bones or plastrons with traces of drilling, chiseling and burning among bronze-casting debris, such as slag and ceramic molds fragments. During the Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE), bronze craftsmen still practiced osteo-pyromancy, as the finds of oracle bones on the Zhuangli foundry site (in use during ca. 900-771 BCE) corroborate.
These finds indicate that divination could be an integral part of bronze-making - a complex technological process related with high risks. At the same time, osteo-pyromancy was not only technique available to bronze craftsmen.
The practice of yarrow-stalks divination has been attested for the first time on the Xiaomintun bronze foundry site in Anyang (in use during ca. 1150-1046 BCE). Combinations of six numerals, representing early forms of hexagrams, have been found on pottery molds for casting bronze vessels. Possibly, the results of auspicious divinations were incised on the molds to secure excellent casting results. The tiny characters were not meant to leave imprints on the vessels' surface. Only seldom a scrupulous inspection can detect their traces on poorly visible parts of cast bronzes. For instance, late Professor Noel Barnard (1922-2016) found such eventual inscription on the outer bottom of the Mao gong ding, the famous late Western Zhou (mid-to late 9th c. BCE) bronze vessel in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Barnard, who intended to prove that this "National Treasure" is a modern fake, did not realize that the characters form a hexagram and thought that they are technical marks left by modern forgers. In the light of new knowledge about ritual practices of Shang and Zhou bronze craftsmen, Barnard's discovery outweighs his suspicions and corroborates the Mao gong ding's authenticity.
Bronze craftsmen were not the only group beyond the political establishment who engaged in prognostication. By scrutinizing excavation reports from several other sites of the Shang and Zhou periods, I have collected further evidence that osteo-pyromancy was associated with some other (but not all) forms of specialized craftsmanship and further economic activities. The publication of this investigation, including a detailed documentation, is currently in preparation.

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