Police arrest 175, recover ancient relics worth $82m
Police arrested 175 people suspected of stealing cultural relics from ancient tombs, and 1,168 relics worth more than 500 million yuan ($82 million) have been recovered, the Ministry of Public Security said on Wednesday.
The artifacts are thought to be those excavated illegally from Niuheliang, a Neolithic archaeological site in Chaoyang, a city in the northeastern province of Liaoning.
Among the relics recovered was a coiled jade dragon, one of the earliest-known depictions of the mythological creature, authorities said.
“Many of the artifacts recovered were seen legitimately for the first time,” Zhang Guilian, senior official at the cultural heritage authority in Liaoning, said in an interview with Beijing Times. “If it hadn’t been for the arrests, these priceless relics would have been sold to private collectors and probably ended up overseas.”
Police started an investigation in June last year, when holes dug at archaeological sites were discovered. More than 1,000 police from six provinces and regions, including Hebei province and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, took part.
The ministry said the suspects came from the six areas and were split into 10 gangs that allegedly handled everything from site excavation to sales.
Metal detectors and excavation equipment were used to unearth the relics. Authorities said the suspects also used knowledge of feng shui to locate buried objects, as most ancient tombs were built in accordance with the principles of feng shui.
The ministry said tomb raiders had become professional and joined organized crime, making it increasingly difficult to crack down on the illegal trade in relics.
The looting also raised questions about security at Liaoning’s historical sites. Four of the suspects are staff members at official archaeological organizations, according to a report by Beijing Times.
A suspect surnamed Deng used to be a technician at an archaeological research center in Liaoning. Deng is suspected of stealing a jade dragon while working on an archaeological excavation and selling it with another suspect, an expert at a local museum, for 3.2 million yuan.
“In the 1980s and earlier, people could dig freely at historical sites,” said Hu Jianmin, a 60- year- old resident of Beipiao, a neighboring city of Chaoyang.
He said there were so many fossils and relics that people used them to build pig sties. Later, when they found they could make money from such objects, digging up tombs became a business.
“People are still digging, but they do it secretly,” he said. “Looters usually work in a group at night. Some dig, some drive and some keep watch. They fill the holes after they are done to avoid detection. Relics dealers then come to the villages to buy.” Contact the writers at email@example.com and pengyining@ chinadaily.com.cn