Researchers create the world’s first 3D print of a 3,000-year old Chinese ‘oracle’ ox bone


There is more to this 3,000-year old ox bone than the initial impression suggests. On closer inspection one could discern a certain language inscribed on the ancient specimen. And quite fascinatingly, this language in question is written in Chinese, thus making the bone one of the oldest extant specimens in the world that showcase Chinese characters. In terms of date, this ox bone is from the antediluvian period between 1339-1112 BC, and is one of 614 Chinese-inscribed oracle bones that are in the collection of Cambridge University Library. And the nifty part is – to celebrate the university’s 600th anniversary, the above pictured specimen has become the world’s very first ‘oracle bone’ that is successfully scanned and then 3D printed.

The incredible collection of these earliest Chinese objects mostly comprise ox shoulder blades (also known as scapulae) and turtle shells. And given their ‘oracle’ credentials, the inscriptions consist of answers to the queries of divination during the period when the Shang dynasty ruled over the north-central part of China. But beyond what may seem as supernatural musings, the writings are actually pretty helpful in providing historical insights into various avenues of then-contemporary Chinese society. These avenues range from familiar scenarios of warfare, agriculture and hunting to scientific progresses like meteorology, astronomy and even medical science. One good example pertaining to scientific assessments would relate to a lunar eclipse record from the year 1192 BC, which makes it one of the earliest accounts of some astronomical situation recorded by any human civilization.

And coming to present-day technological advancements, some researchers have been able to successfully digitalize this figment of historical importance. As Charles Aylmer, Head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library, made it clear –

Some of the bones have already been included in the Cambridge Digital Library but now new technology provides readers around the world an even closer look at these precious artifacts. In what is believed to be a world first, one of the bones (which features in the 600th anniversary exhibition Lines of Thought) has been digitised in 3D thanks to the work of archaeologist Professor Dominic Powlesland, one of the leading pioneers in this area.

Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52 Hi Res
by Professor Dominic Powlesland
on Sketchfab

Now just to get an idea about the sheer degree of preciseness followed by the 3D reconstruction procedure, the bone which only measures about 9 x 14 cm, incorporates a whopping 1.3 million aspects, thus allowing for accurate yet seamless navigation throughout its organic structure. In that regard, the breathtaking details of the process make sure that the viewer can discern quite a few features of this oracle bone beyond just the inscription. These details include the divination pits engraved on the backside of the bone and the scorch marks caused by the heat. These heat-fueled marks possibly ‘fooled’ the augurs and their patrons into believing their link with the supernatural world.

From the technological perspective, the 3D print was made with the help of a specialized printer that is used in the planning phase of orthopaedic surgery. And in case you are wondering, the material used for the 3D reproduction of the oracle bone comprises multiple layers of a fine powdered plaster compound (350 layers to be exact) that are tightened with cyanoacrylate – a type of superglue. Charles Aylmer further talked about the advantages that such an accurate 3D printed reproduction could bring about for future research –

The oracle bones are three-dimensional objects, and high-resolution 3D imagery reveals features which not only all previous methods of reproduction (such as drawings, rubbings and photographs) have been unable to do, but which are not even apparent from careful examination of the actual items themselves. In particular, the reverse sides of the bones, which are crucial to understanding the process of divination but have hitherto been neglected because of the difficulty of representing them adequately, can now be studied in detail thanks to this new technique. 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.

Source: University of Cambridge

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