'Tomb raiders' a very real threat to China's archaeological treasures
By Zhao Xu, China Daily/ANNBEIJING--For Qu Linxia, an archaeologist who specializes in the excavation of ancient tombs, the time between the discovery of a centuries-old burial site and completion of its excavation is an emotional roller coaster.
October 21, 2013, 12:02 am TWN
“Sometimes my heart begins to sink even before we start digging,” she said, referring to the sight of disturbed earth and discarded cigarette butts that almost unquestionably point to visits by tomb raiders.
But what Qu described as her “almost foolish optimism” keeps her hopes alive as she and her colleagues at the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeological Institute carefully approach the core of each tomb.
“Usually, what we discovered was what we most feared: the lid of the coffin would be pushed aside, shards of pottery were scattered all around, embossed bricks that had prevented seepage for eons were broken or missing,” said the 53-year-old, who as a youngster often accompanied her archaeologist father to tomb sites, before taking on his mantle at the age of 16.
“On one occasion, we were greeted by nothing but a half-drunk bottle of mineral water.”
The sight of the bottle, left behind as the raiders beat a hasty retreat, effectively ended a physically and mentally consuming process for Qu by extinguishing the faint glimmer of hope she had kept alive until then.
Army of Grave Robbers
The past two decades have seen more than 200,000 ancient graves plundered, many of which housed the remains of successive generations of emperors, kings and feudal lords. Nationwide, the army of tomb raiders is estimated at 100,000.
Arriving at a site hot on the heels of the archaeological team, the raiders enter themselves in a race against their “official counterparts,” one with which Wang Genfu, former director of the archaeological team of the Nanjing Museum, is all too familiar.
“There were extreme cases when we dug from one side of a site while tomb raiders dug from the other. It wasn't unusual to wake in the morning only to discover that the tunnel we'd worked on the previous day had been advanced by another couple of meters,” said Wang.