Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52 Hi Res by Professor Dominic Powlesland.Amid chaos in China 3,000 years ago, some wise leaders carved ox shoulder bones, engraved writing on them, and held them over a searing fire. The heat cracks that resulted were messages from the spirit world, guiding leaders in warfare and farming, medicine and meteorology, and other crucial developments.

The bones were not discovered for thousands of years, but they proved traditional Chinese history stretched back much further than Western historians believed. The oracle bones, made of ox shoulder blades and turtle shells, had to be carefully preserved and locked away – they were much too fragile to be handled by just any researcher.

But the latest 3-D scanning and printing technology is being used to create exact replicas of the bones, down to those cracks that predicted the future, millennia ago, according to Cambridge University Library.

“To hold a 3-D 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,” said Charles Aylmer, head of the Chinese Department at the library.

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

The bones and shells, some 614 pieces at Cambridge, contain the earliest known documents written in Chinese, dating from 1339 to 1112 B.C. The period was dominated by the royal house of Shang, rulers from the north-central part of China.

The 3-D bone scan depicted most prominently by the library shows the record of a lunar eclipse, believed to have taken place in 1192 B.C. It is about 9 by 14 centimeters, and incorporates 1.3 million aspects to create a view of the entire surface, from the character etchings at the front, to the divination pits at the back, and the heat cracks.

The 3-D print the library made from the scan was made with a hospital printer that is used in planning maxillofacial and orthopedic surgeries. The replica is composed of 350 layers of fine-powdered plaster, hardened with a superglue.

“The oracle bones are three-dimensional objects, and high-resolution 3-D imagery reveals features which not only all previous methods of reproduction have been unable to do, but which are not even apparent from careful examination of the actual items themselves,” added Aylmer.

Cambridge claims their digitized ox bone is believed to be the first-of-its-kind. However, other museums have started to take advantage of the advanced scanning and printing capabilities that have become more affordable in recent years. For instance, the Smithsonian has prioritized roughly 10 percent of its millions of items for digitization. Some other museums have used 3-D printing to allow the blind to touch and explore artifacts, or even reconstruct entire pieces from fragments of unknown origin. 

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