Guangzhou Metro is facing a public outcry after contractors destroyed a group of ancient imperial tombs in the Menggang district during construction of Line 6 of its subway system.
The tombs, ranging from 2,200 to more than 3,000 years old and still being studied by archaeologists, were wrecked by excavators on Friday night.
The protected site, on the eastern slope of Da Gong mountain, had been sealed off by the Guangzhou Archaeology Research Centre, with warning signs posted and red lines marking the protected area.
It was fine when archaeologists left on Friday but had been torn up by the time they returned on Saturday.
"Yesterday we were still conducting archaeological excavations, but all five tombs were gone this morning," said an archaeologist quoted by Southern Metropolis Daily yesterday.
One of the archaeology technicians responsible for the site, Miao Hui , said: "At least five of them were destroyed … this time. They date from the late Shang dynasty to the Warring States. This is not the first time the construction company has destroyed ancient tombs. The area they dug up was sealed by red lines. They even specifically moved our archaeological tools aside before blazing in."
A foreman hired by the centre said the site was impossible to miss. "We have begun working with one of the tombs and used plastic film to cover the unfinished site. It's a very large and obvious target, it's impossible that the workers could miss it."
Yesterday's reports in most Guangzhou media put the number of tombs at five, while Xinhua reported on Saturday that six tombs were destroyed.
A manager for Guangzhou Metro's construction agent said the workers were confused by unclear warning signs and markings left by the archaeologists.
A Guangzhou Metro spokesman said the construction work had already been approved by the archaeology centre, according to Southern Metropolis Daily.
However, it was reported that the centre wrote to the company last month to say the site had not been cleared for construction.
The research centre's director, Zhang Qianglu , said the slope's densely packed tombs had significant historical value.
The subway project is reported to have destroyed more than a dozen ancient tombs in the first five months of the year.
The damage has triggered an outcry online, with internet users describing it as outrageous and shameless. One said she did not believe it was simply a mistake. "The constructor has never taken the historical relics seriously. If you are not sure where to dig, why don't you ask? They must be severely punished, otherwise we'll only see more cultural relics being destroyed."