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Letter from China

Tomb Raider Chronicles

Looting reaches across the centuries—and modern China’s economic strata

Monday, June 10, 2013

china-looting-opener

 

That tree, right there. Do you see that tree?” A portly officer from the Henan Public Security Bureau stood in the cracked mud of an irrigation ditch and pointed at a single, leafless tree in the middle of a field of millet. “If you look to the right, just past the tree, the hole is there.” I looked in the direction he was pointing and told him what I saw: more millet. The officer laughed. “Exactly! That’s how they trick you!”

 

He was referring to a pile of fresh dirt next to the tree, the only above-ground sign of an 1,800-year-old Wei Dynasty tomb that, only two nights before, had been broken into and looted. It was what I had come to Henan to see, evidence of China’s tomb raiders, criminals who loot ancient graves to feed the antiquities market.

 

According to some estimates, there are around 100,000 looters in China. Experts guess that more than 400,000 ancient graves have been robbed in the last 20 years alone. 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.

 

Every archaeologist I met in my three years of writing about archaeology in China was familiar with the work of looters. One told me the tomb he was excavating had been raided multiple times—once a few hundred years ago, again in the 1970s, and finally just months before. At an underwater site near Guangzhou, local authorities were constantly chasing off free-diving thieves who tried to sneak by in the middle of the night. Tomb raiders are, by nature, hard to find. In general, archaeologists don’t like to talk about them because the scale of the problem makes it seem as if China is losing control of its history.

 

On a previous trip to Henan, I was lucky enough to meet an expert in local tombs, Mr. Liu, who grew up in a small village there and has spent his life amassing information about burial practices, artifacts, and the capital cities of various dynasties. When I told Liu, who asked that I not use his real name, that I wanted to get a better understanding of China’s looters, he agreed to help. He had run into, and even interviewed, a few during his career, he said, and would do his best to take me to meet some.