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Easter Han tomb of Luoyang, Henan Province. Representational image only.

3 Men Suffocate, Die While Looting Ancient Tomb in China

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Three men have died and others were incapacitated while grave robbing an ancient tomb in China. The three men died of suffocation in the airless gravesite. Two other men in the tomb called for help, but one of them fainted due to lack of air, and the other fled the scene. Both surviving men were later detained and charged with robbing graves.

As reported by The Washington Post , the team of five entered a tomb near the village of Chengjiao in the relic-rich province of Henan, known as a cradle of Chinese civilization.

 “Police did not say what caused the lack of air in the tomb or if the men managed to steal anything,” notes The New York Times .

Henan, in central-eastern China is said to have played the most important role in the development of Chinese civilization, and is host to a wealth of ancient relics and historical sites.

Shang Dynasty oracle bone script from Henan, showing the first form of Chinese writing

Shang Dynasty oracle bone script from Henan, showing the first form of Chinese writing ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The looting of archaeological sites is a worldwide problem on an enormous scale that shows no signs of slowing even after thousands of years. Thieves dig up the past and sell it into the antiquities market.

In 2013 it was reported that there are more than 100,000 looters in China, and it’s believed that more than 400,000 ancient graves have been robbed in the last 20 years, with numbers still climbing.

The industry magazine Archaeology writes in an article on looting in China:

“Tomb raiders work underground—literally and figuratively—and tend to hang out in the middle of nowhere, in places that were once on the periphery of great cities and rich trade routes. According to the officers who chase them, most are former farmers and peasants. They operate in gangs that teach new recruits how to find and excavate tombs, grabbing only the most desirable artifacts. What they take moves through the hands of middlemen to collectors and auction houses in China and around the world. What they leave behind is a source of endless frustration to archaeologists: damaged, incomplete sites that reveal only a fragmented picture of the past.”

Such was the case in a robbery earlier this year when tomb raiders were caught red-handed tunneling into 1,400-year-old Chinese temple . Their elaborate plan involved renting a restaurant near the ancient Guanghui Temple in China and using it as a base to dig a 50 meter (165 feet) underground tunnel to pillage the treasures inside.

The Hua Pagoda of Guanghui Temple, China.

The Hua Pagoda of Guanghui Temple, China. ( Public Domain )

The plan was foiled after police were alerted to the plot and found the tunnel leading back to the restaurant, but not all the thieves were caught.

A sealed Chinese tomb with grave goods such as jars and miniature buildings, in Luoyang, Henan Province, China, built during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD)

A sealed Chinese tomb with grave goods such as jars and miniature buildings, in Luoyang, Henan Province, China, built during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) ( CC BY-SA ALL )

This week Li Xiaoji, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said the difficulties facing China in protecting its antiquities and heritage are “severe,” reports the Hong Kong Economic Journal, EJInsight.

Breaking the chain is not a straightforward task. Priceless artifacts and sites are indeed being plundered and smuggled out of the country by thieves, but EJInsight writes that in many cases damage to historical sites is caused by local governments or officials. Li explained that some local governments are apathetic about the treasures in their area, or lacked the ability to protect or maintain them.

Li said, “These criminal activities are organized, use high technology and violence, and steal to order.” 

“In some culturally protected areas or where there are construction controls, there is illegal construction, damaging the historical features, including the treasures themselves. Some precious ancient sites and buildings have vanished beneath bulldozers.”

The looting and destruction of antiquities and archaeological sites continues even with media exposure and heightened restrictions, recently highlighted in Egypt, the Middle East , and South America . Experts say that relic plundering in China worsened with the opening up of their economy, and exposure to an international collectors market.

Looters, apathetic officials, and collectors who purchase the artifacts are all responsible for the continued destruction and theft of historical record. As the world’s history is stolen, sold and destroyed, humanity loses irreplaceable pieces of ancient culture, connection with and understanding of the past, and thus our very identity.

Featured Image: Easter Han tomb of Luoyang, Henan Province. Representational image only. (Gary Lee Todd/ CC BY 3.0 )

By Liz Leafloor

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