The oracle bone inscriptions excavated from the Yin Ruins represent the earliest Chinese writings available to us at the present time. Furthermore, of all scripts used by ancient world civilizations, oracle bone inscriptions are the source of the only writing system still in wide use today. The discovery of the inscriptions has had an epoch-making significance in research of both Chinese writing and Yin-Shang history.
In 1880, oracle bones were discovered throughout various parts of China, but, at that time, they were used merely as ingredients in Chinese medicines. It was not until 1899 that scholars recognized that oracle bones were important artifacts of high academic value. After this, oracle bones escaped their former fate as medical ingredients, and became prized academic, historical materials. At the same time, however, the recognition of the value of oracle bones quickly led to rampant private excavations.
In order to deter illegal digging and excavation operations, the IHP led 15 archaeological excavations at the Yin Ruins in Anyang county, Henan province, China between 1928 and 1937. This marked the first ever scientific archaeological excavations of oracle bones. A total of approximately 25,000 oracle bone fragments were excavated during this period, and, due to the excavations conducted during this ten year span, IHP came to possess the world’s largest collection of oracle bones. The numerous archeological and fieldwork data accumulated during these excavations also provided first-hand historical materials for research in the fields of archaeology, paleography, and history.
In particular, the excavation of pit YH127 in 1936 led to the discovery of over ten thousand oracle bone fragments, the largest number of oracle bones ever collected at one time. The oracle bones in pit YH127 can be viewed as the National Archives of the Shang dynasty. These oracle bone inscriptions preserve the complete archival records of the Shang royalty, constituting one of the earliest archival documents in the history of human civilization.