China’s extraordinary historical treasures are under threat from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated tomb raiders, who destroy precious archeological evidence as they swipe irreplaceable relics.
The thieves use dynamite and even bulldozers to break into the deepest chambers — and night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search them. The artifacts they take are often sold on within days to international dealers.
Police have already stepped up their campaign against the criminals and the government is devoting extra resources to protect sites and trace offenders. This year it set up a national information center to tackle such crimes.
Tomb theft is a global problem that has gone on for centuries, but the sheer scope of China’s heritage — with thousands of sites, many of them in remote locations — poses a particular challenge.
“Before, China had a large number of valuable ancient tombs and although it was really depressing to see a tomb raided, it was still possible to run into a similar one in the future,” said Wei Zheng (韋正), an archeologist at Peking University. “Nowadays too many have been destroyed. Once one is raided, it is really difficult to find a similar one.”
His colleague Lei Xingshan (雷興山) said: “We used to say nine out of 10 tombs were empty because of tomb-raiding, but now it has become 9.5 out of 10.”
Their team found more than 900 tombs in one part of Shanxi Province they researched and almost every one had been raided.
They spent two years excavating two high grade tombs from the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods (spanning 1,100 BC to 221 BC) and found both had been completely emptied by thieves. “It really is devastating to see it happening,” Zheng said. “Archeologists are now simply chasing after tomb raiders.”
Experts say the problem became worse as China’s economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves.
Zheng said a phrase became popular in the 1980s: “If you want to be rich, dig up old tombs and become a millionaire overnight.”
However, he added that a crackdown by authorities was helping to contain the problem to an extent. According to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, police investigated 451 tomb-raiding cases in 2010 and another 387 involving the theft of relics. In the first six months of that year, they smashed 71 gangs, detained 787 suspects and recovered 2,366 artifacts.
Those caught face fines and jail terms of three to 10 years, or life in the most serious cases.
Officials say tomb thefts have become increasingly professional. Gangs from the worst hit provinces — Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan, which all have a particularly rich archeological heritage — have begun exporting their expertise to other regions. One researcher estimated that 100,000 people were involved in the trade nationally.
Wei Yongshun, a senior investigator, told China Daily last year that crime bosses often hired experienced teams of tomb thieves and sold the plunder on to middlemen as quickly as they could.
International collectors bear as much responsibility for the crimes as the actual thieves: the high prices they offer create the incentive for criminals.
“Stolen cultural artifacts are usually first smuggled out through Hong Kong and Macao and then taken to Taiwan, Canada, the US or European countries to be traded,” Wei said.