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What’s Behind China’s Professional Tomb Raiding Trend?

Move over, Lara Croft: raiding tombs is an increasingly viable career in China

The famous terracotta army guards the tomb of Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang. Dozens of other graves and ruins around China are not so well secured. (I. Staudacher/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
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For many Americans, the phrase "tomb raider" brings Lara Croft to mind. But for some in China, tomb raiding is becoming a viable career — one that can come with some serious consequences. Recently, authorities in the Sichuan province arrested 12 grave robbers for swiping carved doors and burial artifacts from a Song dynasty tomb built between 960 and 1290 C.E., Hou Qiang reports for China’s Xinhua news agency.

Tomb raiding is hardly a new phenomenon in archaeology, and it's long been an issue for Chinese sites. The recent arrests highlight an uptick in the practice, notes Qiang. In 2012, robbers stole and damaged stone sculptures from the mausoleum of a Ming dynasty prince. This past May, police arrested 175 raiders for taking artifacts from a Neolithic site, according to Jethro Mullen of CNN. And more recent historic sites aren’t immune to the epidemic, either — Qiang also points to a June raid at a tomb that dates from 1917.

What’s driving so many people to loot? Chalk it up to a strange mix of greed, culture and fiction, writes Qiang. Obviously, the black market for antiquities can be pretty lucrative. Artifacts from the Neolithic site would have snagged $80 million on the market, but they were seized by authorities before they could be sold. And collecting such artifacts has also become increasingly popular in Chinese culture.

A popular novel about tomb raiding has taken this infatuation to a new level, relics protection expert Liang Xiao told Qiang. First published in 2011, the hugely popular “Grave Robber Chronicles” follow the adventures of a young man whose family has been robbing tombs for centuries. The books portray raiding as a viable, even historic, profession.

All of these factors complicate the jobs of understaffed and underfunded provincial cultural relics departments, writes Qiang. Academics have called for more funding and a national database of artifacts. With a little help, they’ll have a better shot at catching would-be crooks.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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