Chinese Museum Offers $15,000 to Anyone Who Can Crack This Ancient Bone Riddle

An example of the ancient script embedded in China's 'oracle bones.' . (Photo: BabelStone/Wikimedia)

If deciphering ancient characters is something that comes easily to you, a museum in China is willing to pay handsomely for your services.

The South China Morning Post is reporting that the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang has issued a worldwide appeal for assistance in cracking the meaning behind engraved characters on its collection of "oracle bones." Dating back more than 3,000 years to the Shang dynasty, these bones mark some of the earliest examples of pyromancy, or divination by means of fire.

An ancient form of soothsaying

Oracle bones were used during the Shang dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C.) to foretell future events such as weather, the success of military campaigns, and personal fortunes. The bones were prepared by cleaning them of meat and then scraping or smoothing them to create a flat surface. Anointed with blood, they were engraved with a date, the diviner (sometimes even the Shang king himself served in this role), and the topic of the divination. After being exposed to intense heat in a pit, the bones would crack and the diviner would interpret these cracks for answers.

An oracle bone pit uncovered at Yinxu, Anyang.
An oracle bone pit uncovered at Yinxu, Anyang. (Photo: Xuan Che/Wikimedia)

Once the divination was complete, the oracle bones were discarded in special pits. (One pit that was unearthed in 1936 was found to contain more than 17,000 bones.)

Since their discovery in 1899, archaeologists have collected some 200,000 oracle bones. Many more were destroyed over the centuries by traditional Chinese pharmacies. Convinced that the bones with the strange glyphs had magical properties, they were often ground up as medicine in an attempt to cure everything from malaria to knife wounds.

Crowdsourcing the riddle

While the characters present on the bones — mostly carved on ox scapulas and the flat portions of turtle shells — have some resemblance to modern Chinese characters, researchers have only deciphered 2,000 of the 5,000 recorded. They believe some of them could be references to people or places, with many likely lost to history.

"Since it was a long time ago and many places have changed their names, it has been difficult to verify them," Liu Fenghua, an oracle bone specialist from Zhengzhou University told Chengdu Economic Daily. "For financial reasons, many oracle bone scholars have changed their research focus to other subjects."

A cracked tortoise plastron carved with characters dating back to the Shang dynasty.
A cracked tortoise plastron carved with characters dating back to the Shang dynasty. (Photo: BabelStone/Wikimedia)

In an effort to attract more researchers into taking on the riddle, the museum is offering 100,000 yuan ($15,000) for the proven explanation behind each character. Once approved by two separate language experts, the money will be handed over and the individual can try cracking another character.

According to the Post, uncovering the meaning behind a single ancient mark can be a career-defining achievement for a Chinese linguist.

Should efforts to unravel the remaining riddles of the oracle bones prove successful, the information recorded would shed new light on some of China's earliest history. Deciphered bones have described everything from the complete royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty to a solar eclipse and comet. A $15,000 reward for the meaning behind just one cryptic glyph could be just the breakthrough the researchers have been searching for.

“If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Zhu Yanmin, a history professor from Nankai University in Tianjin, told Beijing Youth Daily.