While modern science may enable us to forecast tomorrow’s weather or plot the course of celestial objects over thousands of years, actually predicting the future remains beyond us. However, in the days of the Shang dynasty, which ruled central China from the 16th to the 11th century BCE, inscriptions and markings made on so-called oracle bones were believed to reveal the intentions of the ancestral spirits controlling the fate of all living beings.
After scanning and 3D-printing a 3,000-year-old oracle bone housed at Cambridge University Library, researchers have managed to reveal details of these engravings with greater clarity than ever before, providing key insights into life in Ancient China.
Typically, oracle bones consisted of either ox bones or turtle shells, upon which diviners inscribed questions directed toward the ancestors of the Shang royal family. Small pits were then dug into the underside of these items, which, when heated with a flame, would cause cracks to appear on the surface. The shapes and patterns of these cracks were thought to encode messages from the ancestors, which diviners would interpret in order to decipher the course of future events.
Believed to be the oldest existing documents written in the Chinese language, some 614 oracle bones are currently held by Cambridge University Library. In celebration of the institution’s 600th anniversary, one of these artifacts has now become the first ever oracle bone to be scanned and 3D-printed.
Written on the shoulder blade of an ox, the ancient relic contains a number of faded inscriptions that previous methods of reproduction have failed to reveal. However, a high-resolution 3D model of the bone, created at the Media Studio of Addenbrooke's Hospital, has enabled researchers to observe many of these long-lost details with greater clarity than ever before.
Among the engravings found on this particular oracle bone is a record of a lunar eclipse that occurred in 1192 BCE, shedding light on ancient Chinese astronomical methods. The digitized model of the bone can be explored below.
Researchers then borrowed the hospital’s 3D printer – which is normally used to create items that facilitate orthopedic surgery – in order to create a physical reproduction of the oracle bone.
Commenting on this achievement, Charles Aylmer of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library said: “To hold a 3D print of an oracle bone is a very special experience, as it provides the same sensory impression as that obtained by the people who created them over three thousand years ago, but without the risk of harm to the priceless originals.”