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Easter Han tomb of Luoyang, Henan Province.

Social Networks Aid Army of Tomb Raiders in China

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Looters have been skulking around and digging up family treasures as long as rich sites filled with valuable artifacts have existed, but now gangs have become sophisticated and organized, and are harnessing modern technology to rob ancient graves.

A group of six looters were recently caught by police in the county of Ningjin in Hebei province, China. Last May the gang, led by a man named Nuan, broke into the tomb of a high-ranking official of the Ming imperial court. Although the tomb had been monitored by security cameras, the thieves disabled the cameras and, with a crane and steel cables, managed to hoist a two-ton stone horse onto a truck and drive away.

A different ancient tomb in Qingzhou City, China had been thoroughly looted, but one of the looters may have paid a heavy price, as remains of a body were found in looting tunnels.

A different ancient tomb in Qingzhou City, China had been thoroughly looted, but one of the looters may have paid a heavy price , as remains of a body were found in looting tunnels. Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics

The 400-year-old ancient complex, containing the tomb of Minister Qin Minglei had survived the Cultural Revolution campaign in China (1966 – 1976) which sought to destroy the “four olds”—old culture, customs, habits and ideas—only to fall now to thieves seeking quick money, reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Police captured the looters and managed to retrieve the stone horse statue after the gang had failed to sell the artifact on the black market for between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan (31,000 to 47,000 USD). The statue is worth more than a million, however none of the antique dealers they approached placed any bids.

New Techniques for an Old Business

Grave robbers have reportedly now teamed up through the use of social media, going online to connect and share information through internet chat rooms in order to loot archaeological and historical sites in various provinces.

Nuan recruited his team, described as novices in the business of looting, through online chatrooms. He also is alleged to have secured finances for the plot via online channels, backed by a man named Feng, who is also being investigated.

These thieves were able to pick up basic knowledge on looting techniques and antiquities from reading The Grave Robbers’ Chronicles ,

“A popular series of novels featuring an adventurer named Wu Xie, as well as online chat groups about the series.
 

Written by Xu Lei, the stories were initially published on a website and soon drew more than 18 million views, sparking a craze for tales combining grave robbing and the supernatural. The books started appearing in print in 2011, and spin-offs such as comic books, video games and a film and TV series followed.”

While learning from books and the internet is a good thing, and these are simply tools to be used for good or ill, the ease of information sharing has meant a boom in looting which was lucrative even before the advent of online chatrooms.

Ancient Looting, a History of Theft

Traditionally such looters were criminal warlords, as farmers and traders feared the supernatural repercussions of curses if they dared trespass or steal from tombs. As the superstitions have waned, what is described as an “army” of looters have no compunctions over ransacking tombs for their opulent, ancient treasures.

Interior of the Dingling Tomb, a part of the Ming Dynasty Tombs, collection of mausoleums built by the Chinese Ming dynasty emperors. Representational image.

Interior of the Dingling Tomb, a part of the Ming Dynasty Tombs, collection of mausoleums built by the Chinese Ming dynasty emperors. Representational image. (Louis Le Grand/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sophisticated Methods

A member of the Archaeologist Association of Jiangsu, Ni Fangliu tells SCMP the pace of modern plundering is unprecedented. An author of five books on looting in China, Ni believes there may be as many as 100,000 full-time tomb robbers in the country today.

Archaeologists now struggle with the impact of the emboldened looters. While the days of digging with shovels have not gone, more aggressive tomb raiders have been employing advanced detection tools, and using explosives and other highly destructive methods to gain entry to ancient tombs.

Easter Han tomb of Luoyang, Henan Province.

Easter Han tomb of Luoyang, Henan Province.(Gary Lee Todd/ CC BY 3.0 )

SCMP writes, “Complaining about layers of stone blocking him from a tomb chamber in southwestern Sichuan, web user Huwai911, wrote ‘I almost give up.’

‘Blow it up!’ advised respondent Gebilaowang826. ‘My team is professional. We can help you out as long as profits are divided with us.”

The Hua Pagoda of Guanghui Temple, China. A team of looters tomb raiders were caught red-handed tunneling into 1,400-year-old Chinese temple.

The Hua Pagoda of Guanghui Temple, China. A team of looters tomb raiders were  caught red-handed tunneling into 1,400-year-old Chinese temple .  ( Public Domain )

As archaeologists learn more about ancient traditions, plans, and architecture, so too do the looters. So-called professional tomb raiders have learned the best locations in various provinces, are able to recognize the surroundings and terrains that were used by the ancients in which to build tombs, and local history will tell them which noble clans will have been buried at a location, and what type or value of artifacts to expect.

The Deadly Price of Looting

It was recently reported by Business Standard that tomb raiders have even stolen the ashes of loved ones from cemeteries in China, only to contact the relatives and demand ransoms. 

The price of looting is sometimes higher than thieves expect, as revealed by the deadly results as seen in other robberies, as when three men suffocated while looting a tomb in China .

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 )

The romantic image of looting as reinforced by popular novels, video games and movies, as well as the emergence of powerful new technologies, has dealt a devastating blow to China’s cultural heritage—one that archaeologists are struggling to protect and preserve.

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

By: Liz Leafloor      

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