Project Spotlight: Oracle Bones in East Asia

Open Context Project Spotlight

by Hannah Lau

Our first project spotlight is the Oracle Bones in East Asia project, by Katherine Brunson, Zhipeng Li and Rowan Flad. The project is a collaboration between researchers at Brown University, the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Harvard University. Its goal is to create a comprehensive dataset of oracle bones—animal bone artifacts found at archaeological sites spanning the Neolithic and Bronze Ages—that can be used to trace the origins and spread of oracle bone divination rituals in East Asia. The project particularly focuses on uninscribed oracle bones, which have been less systematically published than their inscribed counterparts.

Oracle Bones in East Asia project member Katherine Brunson was recently awarded a grant from the Esherick-Ye Family Foundation to undertake summer fieldwork to analyze, measure and record oracle bones in archaeological collections in China. As the database grows, it will be possible to examine broad spatial and temporal trends in the use of oracle bones in ancient China.

The Oracle Bones in East Asia project exemplifies the many benefits of data sharing! One goal of the project is to make data accessible in multiple languages that otherwise could only be accessed in person. An example can be seen at this link, where the project team members have clearly defined, in English and Chinese, all the zones they refer to on each bone. This thorough and clear documentation points the way for how archaeologists can work from the bottom up to develop common recording systems that enable broad comparisons across projects. That is, if researchers propose and publish clear “standards” that they have found to be useful in their work, and clearly demonstrate how they used these standards, others will adopt them and this will build a body of comparable data. Additionally, publishing oracle bone data and data collection protocols together in an open access format will encourage scholars from around the globe to use the database for their own research on oracle bones and to contribute specimens from their own collections.

Project Spotlights showcase data publications in Open Context that have unique features or exemplary documentation. We will spotlight projects every few weeks to highlight the diversity of data publications and the creative work being shared by authors.

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