Oracle Bones and Writing Stones: Teaching the Geography of Script

By Kay Gandy Literacy, Geography

The diffusion of writing systems or materials was often determined by religion, politics, or economics. For example, the Latin script used to write the doctrines of Roman Catholicism and the Arabic script used to write the Koran were instrumental in diffusing writings and languages throughout the world.

Oracle bones (animal bones used for divination) were used as early as the Shang dynasty to make predictions (and get answers) about births, deaths, harvests, battles, the weather, and other royal concerns. Connections to civilizations of the past have often been made through the study of archaeological finds such as oracle bones and stone tablets. A study of these types of writing script would intrigue students and could enhance geography instruction. For instance, students could examine how environment influenced writing tools and materials; how climate protected or destroyed writing materials; the spatial diffusion of writing; technology and writing; and regional influences on writing.



Photo: Ancient China Oracle Bones / iStock by Getty Images

Types of Writing Materials

In some cultures, writing materials were created. Paper was made by the Chinese from rags and fibers repeatedly soaked, pounded, bleached, washed, and strained, then dried in a mesh frame. Chinese text has been carved or written on bamboo, silk, shells, metal, clay, jade, wood, stone, bones, and paper. Clay was an easily obtained commodity in the river plains of Mesopotamia and could be effortlessly erased or preserved. Papyrus (a type of paper) was made from stems of papyrus plant, which grew abundantly in the marshy districts of Lower Egypt. Other types of writing materials around the world included copper, bronze, brass, crystals, linen, and even the skins of fishes and intestines of serpents. Some Native American tribes wrote on animal hides. In many parts of the world, the prepared skins of animals were used to make parchment. A heavier and more durable writing material than papyrus, parchment could be washed or scraped off and reused.

Oracle bones, made from the undershells of turtles and cattle shoulder bones, were typically used to record early communications in China. Chinese characters were carved into the bones with a sharp tool by diviners of the royal court. Intense heat was applied to the bones with a glowing metal rod to force the bones to crack in a vertical line with a perpendicular line. If the perpendicular crack was within 20 degrees on either side of a 90-degree angle, the answer was positive. If the angle of the crack fell outside to the 70- to 110-degree angle, the answer was negative. For instance, the diviner might inscribe, “For the next ten days, there will be no disasters.” After forcing the bone to crack, the perpendicular angles would be examined for a yes or no answer. Oracle bone inscriptions also dealt with such diverse topics as politics, economics, culture, and geography and included methodical records of solar and lunar eclipses.

Some of the earliest readable inscriptions on stelae (vertical inscribed stones) in the Americas date from AD 143 and 156 and are believed to be from the Epi-Olmec people. Stelae were considered more of a propaganda tool to legitimize power and proclaim the magnificent lives of the powerful rulers. Inscriptions were carved and painted on doorjambs, lintels, and steps leading to temples or palaces and dealt with births, deaths, wars, royal lineages, and marriages.

The secrets of ancient Egypt were unlocked when the Rosetta stone was decoded and revealed to scholars the interpretation of hieroglyphs. The information on the Rosetta stone was written in three different scripts, including Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Until its discovery and interpretation, no one had known how to read hieroglyphic writing for almost 1,400 years.



For the Classroom

Start by asking students the following questions:

  • Why were oracle bones considered powerful medicine?
  • What if the early script had been written on bamboo?
  • Do we have types of oracle bones today?

Discuss other types of divination, such as dowsing rods, palm reading, casting of lots, board games, card reading, runes, or crystal gazing.

Continue the discussion with one of the following questions:

  • What environmental influences might have affected the tools of divination?
  • What are ways that religion and the environment are connected?
  • What other ways have people explained natural phenomena, such as the disappearance of the sun or the lack of rain?

Speculate on the many types of writing materials that might not have survived through the centuries and make conclusions about climate and writing. In the wet climate of China, materials such as bamboo and bark would have decayed quickly, whereas the drier climate and sands of Egypt would have preserved the materials better. Go outside to experiment with various types of writing materials found in nature. Write on sidewalks or notebooks with various types of leaves, rocks, and sticks. Have students make conclusions about how the physical environment may have influenced the way writing developed in various regions. Discuss how inks were prepared from carbon, soot, red ocher, calcium carbonate (white), red lead, yellow ocher, limonite (brown), malachite (green), and blue frit.

Find objects that would represent the stick, round, and shell shapes of Mayan number script (e.g., pretzel sticks, round crackers, and shell pasta). Have students practice writing numbers with dates and addition problems. Discuss how items in the environment might have affected the shapes of the glyphs. For example, soft, moist clay was not suitable for curved pictorial drawings, so the Sumerians created a writing style of short strokes and angles.

Give students a large brown paper bag and ask them to tear it out flat. A smaller portion of the paper is cut to resemble a buffalo skin. Have them crumple the paper and open it several times to create a smooth, parchment-like surface and then draw any type of script or pictorial representation on their parchment. Discussions about the use of buffalo skins by Native Americans and cattle skins by other peoples can lead to the conclusion that parchment would not have been used in India, Southeast Asia or East Asia because the use of butchered animal skins to write sacred texts offended the religious beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists.

Examine trade winds and ocean currents to determine the possibilities of Chinese ships sailing to Mesoamerica (or vice versa) and spreading the use of script. Look at overland trade routes to determine the impact on the diffusion of scripts. Show the movie Kon Tiki (Janson Media, 2006), about Thor Heyerdahl’s 4,300-nautical-mile journey on a balsa-log raft from Peru to the Polynesian islands. Ask students: What currents make it possible for travel between continents? What challenges would sailors meet on the oceans? What other events contributed to the diffusion of writing?

The secrets of governments and commanders encouraged the development of a new form of writing: codes and ciphers. Efficient and covert communication was essential to disguise messages and maintain security. It was code breakers who often turned the tide of war or saved governments. Secret writing saved Greece from being conquered by the Persian king Xerxes, interception of coded letters saved Queen Elizabeth I from an assassination plot by her cousin, and microdot photography spotted by FBI agents prevented German agents from being effective during the Second World War. The United States created its own encryption system by using the Navajo code talkers. Have students examine various code forms, then develop their own secret coded messages.

Scripts can be written in many directions. Chinese characters are written from top to bottom and read right to left. Mongolian scripts are also written from top to bottom but read left to right. Hebrew and Arabic are read from right to left on a horizontal line, whereas Latin and Greek are read from left to right. Have students compare the various types of writing for similarities and differences.

There is no doubt that writing shaped culture, imparted religious beliefs, disseminated scientific knowledge, and influenced social status. Physical geography influenced the types of writing materials, and climate often determined the preservation of the written word. Trade routes and religion diffused languages and script throughout the world. By studying how location, climate, regional characteristics, and physical environment influenced societies, students can make connections between the development of writing and geography.

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Kay Gandy is a retired professor of seventeen years and a retired elementary teacher of twenty-seven years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books Mapping Is Elementary, My Dear and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies provide practical lesson ideas for elementary teachers.