During excavations at a 2,500-year-old archaeological site in Puyang, China, a set of 10 polished and painted bone slips or sticks were unearthed, all of which were inscribed with an ancient Chinese numbering system known as the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches (or the Tiangan (Dizhi) in Chinese). It is believed these bone slips were sacred items that would have been used in fortune telling sessions or during religious ceremonies organized to contact divine beings.

Were these Chinese Bone Slips Used for Fortune-Telling Activities?

With roots that date far back into antiquity, the Heavenly Stems and the Earthly Branches were used primarily for the purposes of time keeping. These two counting systems were derived from astronomical observations and measurements, and they were wildly popular in ancient China and in other parts of Asia as well.

Because of the association of the Tiangan (Dizhi) with time and the heavens, they were frequently used to produce calendars. This practice can be traced back to the era when the Shang Dynasty controlled the country, between 1600 and 1050 BC. But it would be a mistake to conclude the bone slips newly discovered in China were somehow linked to calendar making activity, researchers say, simply because of the number systems inscribed on their surfaces.

The bone slips discovered in China were unearthed during excavations at the site of an abandoned urban settlement known as Gan. (China News Service)

The bone slips discovered in China were unearthed during excavations at the site of an abandoned urban settlement known as Gan. (China News Service)

Due to the precious nature of the bone from which these bone slips were carved, Chinese folk culture expert Xiong Gang told the Global Times that he doubts they were used strictly for time keeping. Rather, he believes the bone slips were created for “fortune-telling activities” and “ancient sacrificial ceremonies.”

Unadorned bone slips used for this purpose were “often made of the bones of animals like oxen,” he noted. They were produced quite frequently during the years when the Western Han Dynasty culture, which ruled from 206 to 9 AD, maintained political control of Chinese lands.

As evidence for the fortune telling theory, researchers point out that an oracle bone found in China that dates to approximately 1,000 BC was inscribed with a circular representation of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches. The association of this sacred numbering system with a relic used to forecast the future establishes a clear link in ancient Chinese thought between fortune telling and important astronomical measurements and phenomena.

Oracle bone divination ceremonies in ancient China were designed to elicit the assistance of deities or deceased ancestors. People sought advice from these powerful beings on how to cure medical problems, ensure safe childbirth, guarantee success in military campaigns or hunting trips, and protect annual harvests from the forces of nature. Just the act of consulting with these wise counselors was thought to bring good fortune, and bone slips would have served just as well as oracle bones in these sacred rituals.

Early 12th-century Shanghai Dynasty oracle bone. (Shanghai Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Early 12th-century Shanghai Dynasty oracle bone. (Shanghai Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unearthing Gan and Revealing Amazing Bone Slips from a Distant Era

The archaeological site that produced these most unusual artifacts is in Central China’s Henan Province near the city of Puyang, a bustling metropolis with a population of nearly four million. In ancient times this was the location of a much smaller city known as Gan. It was within the borders of this abandoned urban settlement where archaeologists unearthed the bone divination slips.

Analysis of the ruins and artifacts discovered so far show that this city in its final form was built more than 2,000 years ago, during China’s Warring States Period (475 to 221 BC), and endured into the latter days of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD).

The ruins of this ancient city are bisected by a huge wall. On both sides of the divide, archaeologists excavated many long and narrow tombs (about 40 in all), which were filled with impressive collections of grave goods that included ceramic pottery, bronze mirrors, chess pieces and other assorted personal items.

Drawing conclusions based on the shape of the graves and the abundance of artifacts found inside them, archaeologist Qu Fulin told the Global Times that the tombs “were very likely built during the Han, particularly the Western Han Dynasty.”

Presumably the city went into decline during the Eastern Han Dynasty, which succeeded the Western Han in the late first century BC. Further excavations may reveal the truth about why the city was eventually abandoned.

Pottery unearthed at ancient city ruins of Gan in modern-day Puyang. (China News Service)

Pottery unearthed at ancient city ruins of Gan in modern-day Puyang. (China News Service)

The Lost Ancient Cities of Dynastic China are Being Found

The Puyang excavations were sponsored by the Henan Provincial Institute of Culture Heritage and Archaeology. The researchers who analyzed the bone slips acknowledged the importance of the artifacts unearthed, but they also pointed to the layout and physical characteristics of the city of Gan as being highly significant. “The discovered ancient city also sheds light on studies into the urban planning and construction systems of the Han Dynasty,” Qu Fulin told the Global Times

The city of Gan is not the only ancient settlement that has been unearthed near Puyang. Archaeologists have also discovered ruins and artifacts from an ancient city called Qi, which dates back even further than Gan, to the days of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty which ruled from 770 to 476 BC. Perhaps future excavations in Henan Province will uncover the remains of even more urban enclaves dating back to China’s legendary ancient dynastic times.

Top image: Excavations of a city wall belonging to the ancient city of Gan which existed near the modern-day city of Puyang in China. It was here that the bone slips were uncovered. Source: China News Service

By Nathan Falde

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