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Tomb raiders unearth new marketplace

Tomb raiders unearth new marketplace
By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
ANYANG, China — The old warlord, infamous for backstabbing and bloodletting, can hardly complain. When Chinese state television broadcast a live excavation this month of the tomb of General Cao Cao, the destruction found inside confirmed that tomb robbers had beaten archaeologists to the underground site.
Back in the third century, Cao Cao organized his soldiers into a treasure-hunting, tomb-raiding division. These days, the Chinese government threatens the death penalty for stealing cultural relics, yet this history-obsessed country still struggles to protect its rich historical legacy from a surge in an ancient trade: tomb raiding.

As China grows more prosperous, more Chinese are taking up antique collecting, and the growing demand is often met by fakes or tomb robbing, says antiques expert Wu Shu, 60.

Tomb raiding is “the worst in 20 years, when the antique collection market started” in China, he says. Government figures suggest that from 200,000 to 300,000 ancient tombs have been raided in the past two decades, “but the reality far exceeds that number,” says Wu, who agrees with a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimate that tomb robbers number more than 100,000. “When I speak to the leaders of archaeological teams, they tell me, ‘Of 10 tombs, nine are empty,’ ” Wu says.

Aboveboard antiquing

From 2,000-year-old porridge pots to 3,000-year-old wine jars, farmer Long Zhenshan knows well what history lurks beneath the dusty soil of Yuyang village, close to the site of Cao’s tomb.

Since he dug up some old pottery when planting trees in 1974, the farmer, now an antiques enthusiast, has collected more than 3,000 pieces from the fields, but never from a tomb, he says.

“These pieces show that people have been living here continuously for 6,000 years,” he says.

Long’s pride in his collection is clear. So is his frustration at the government’s response to tomb raiding. In 2003, he says, he alerted officials to robberies at a tomb that he guessed — correctly, as it turned out — was Cao’s. Long says it was raided several times before police responded four years later.

The state Administration of Cultural Heritage says crackdowns are hampered sometimes by a lack of local cooperation.

Since 2007, five gangs have targeted the tomb, and the region’s poverty is the main driver, Long says. His yearly earnings from wheat and maize fields rarely top 5,000 yuan — a little more than $700.

“Peaceful Harvest” is the translation of Anfeng township, the area that includes Cao’s tomb. Some villages there, such as Muchangtun, have a reputation for harvesting more than just wheat and other crops.

Wheat farmer Li Haichao, 30, says several villagers were arrested last year in raids to recover items stolen from Cao’s tomb.

“There are many people with money here, but they don’t dare show it as it came from tombs and they fear being fined,” Li says.

‘New currency of bribery’

Raiders are growing bolder. In January, a gang used bulldozers to smash into more than 10 ancient tombs in Jiangsu province.

“Ancient-tomb robbery is rampant in China,” Xu Weihong, excavation team leader at Xian’s famous Teracotta Army, told the Global Times newspaper. “Sometimes our archaeologists’ job is like that of a firefighter. We rush here and there to rescue robbed, ancient tombs.”

In May, a court in Hunan province dealt death penalties to four men dressed as soldiers who used explosives and earth movers to raid a dozen tombs, finding treasures that included a 2,000-year-old royal seal, the Legal Weekend newspaper reported.

Robbers combine techniques old and new, analyst Wu Shu says. To find tomb sites, they are guided by traditional divination and feng shui beliefs about how tombs and other things should be situated for spiritual balance. They use modern prospecting equipment, classic archaeological spades and a knowledge of explosives to gain access, usually in a single night’s work.

While China’s antiques market is booming, Wu says “90% of it is illegal,” either fakes or state-level relics that should not be in private hands.

The antiques that robbers unearth “have become a new currency of bribery in China,” collector Hu Wengao told the state news agency Xinhua.

“Almost all the best antiques have gone either to foreign countries or corrupt high-ranking officials in China,” Hu alleged.

In Beijing, the capital, antique malls have arisen around Panjiayuan, a famous antiques market.

Chairman Mao banned antique collecting in 1949 as too “capitalist,” says Zhang Jinfa, 55, a collector who verifies others’ finds. Collecting started its comeback in the early 1980s, he says.

Embedded in popular culture

The government estimates there are at least 70 million collectors. Zheng says the real figure is perhaps half that, but he regrets how many people enter the market for profit, not passion.

“I tell most people to avoid antique collection, as it is a brutal business and too addictive,” he says. “Many people believe they can buy something cheaply, and sell it for far more, but that rarely happens,” he cautions. Less than 1% of the items he verifies are truly valuable, he says.

Zhang admits that many items in his own collection came from tomb raids, but he denies that he stole them or that he has any direct connection with the robbers.

“We need to protect them however they are obtained,” he says.

China’s surging interest in antiques is fueled by popular TV shows. On one, the host smashes the piece in front of startled owners if he decides it is fake. Wu blames such shows for raising prices — and false hopes.

A popular book series, Tomb Raiders’ Diary, is about to reach its final installment, and talks are underway for a Hollywood version, the Hangzhou newspaper Today Daily reported.

“We have laws, but no strict implementation,” Wu Shu says. “We must increase patriotic and cultural education, and be less tolerant of local officials who do not chase after tomb robbers.”

Long Zhenshan hopes that through the attention being paid to Cao’s tomb, where formal excavation began in 2008, “people will know more about antiques and tombs, and want to protect them instead of robbing them.”

Long’s children show little interest in his antiques, but he hopes local officials will follow through on a promise to build a museum to display them.

Anyang County was already famous in China for the discovery of oracle bones — animal bones heated to reveal cracks that supposedly predicted events — in its 3,300-year-old ruins. Now people hope for a windfall from Cao’s tomb.

Cao was a major figure in the dramatic Three Kingdoms period of disunity in earliest Chinese history. It has been romanticized in countless operas, books and films, and a current hit TV show.

At Xigaoxue village, a cultural relics theme park is planned to be built around the tomb. Villagers hope to cash in.

Yang Shuimei, 51, says she was not paid enough for land that was taken for the digs, but she has set up the first roadside stall selling Cao Cao-related souvenirs.

“This is a poor place, where we rely on the land,” she says, “but now we hope to get rich from Cao Cao.”

Contributing: Sunny Yang

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