Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China and they are among the oldest items held in the British Library.

Questions about crops, the weather, battles, and the ruling family were engraved on the bone and heat was then applied with metal sticks. The heat caused the bones to crack and the diviners interpreted the patterns of the fractures to determine the answer to the question posed.

Oracle bones are carved with the Shang Dynasty script: the oldest known form of Chinese writing and the ancestor of the Chinese characters still used today. The script is angular and the shape of the characters is simplified as much as possible to make it easier to engrave on hard surfaces.

This shoulder bone bears an inscription about the coming ten-day period and records that there will be no bad luck. The character for ‘moon’ (yue 月 in modern Chinese) is visible at the top centre. This particular oracle bone is important for the study of the ancient Chinese calendar and astronomy as it carries a record of a lunar eclipse on the reverse side.