Chinese oracle bones

Detail of an oracle bone, showing T-shaped cracks on the surface
Detail from a Shang dynasty oracle bone Or. 7694/1535 (recto)

We have a unique series of more than 450 Chinese oracle bones (jia gu甲骨). They date from the Shang Dynasty (between 1600 and 1050 BCE) and this makes them among the oldest items in the British Library.

About the collection

The oracle bones in the British Library come from the Couling-Chalfant Collection, which was made in China between 1903 and 1908 by two missionaries, Samuel Couling and Frank Chalfant, the former British and the latter American, who were working in the Shandong Province.

The Chinese oracle bones officially entered the British Library collection, which was part of the British Museum at that time, in 1911.

What is available online?

The concordance list of the oracle bones shows the British Library shelfmarks and their corresponding numbers from the catalogue Yingguo suo cang jia gu ji.

Digital images of the oracle bones can be seen on Digitised Manuscripts. 3D models of some oracle bones can be seen in the British Library SketchFab page.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

For conservation reasons, the Library’s oracle bones cannot be ordered to the Reading Rooms. Special arrangements for viewing must be discussed in advance and approved by the curators.

What is available in other organisations?

Other oracle bones coming from the Couling-Chalfant Collection can be also found in the National Museum of Scotland.

There a number of different oracle bone collections worldwide. In the UK, the major collections include other items from the Couling-Chalfant Collection held at the National Museum of Scotland and the Hopkins Collection at Cambridge University Library. 

Further information