Third-century general and warlord Cao Cao is one of the most colourful and controversial figures in Chinese history; lamented by some as a merciless tyrant, praised by others as a genius who treated his subordinates like family. Popularised in history books and literary works for centuries, Cao Cao captured the Chinese imagination and when Henan cultural heritage authorities claimed to have found his tomb late last year, it stirred both excitement and controversy. The claim drew the scrutiny of academics from diverse fields of study. Some criticised the Henan authorities' conclusion as premature, and others dismissed it as a scam to cash in on the fame of the dead general. The war of words over the tomb also provoked renewed hand-wringing in the wider community over a perceived culture of dishonesty permeating Chinese society. In a high-profile press conference in Beijing on December 27, Henan cultural heritage authorities and the Anyang city government announced that excavation work at a tomb in the village of Xigaoxue by a provincial archaeological team had uncovered more than 250 artefacts and three sets of human bones, which led them to conclude that the tomb was that of Cao Cao. The archaeological team - which has the support of respected archaeologists such as Liu Qingzhu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - said its conclusion was based on thorough studies of the tomb's layout, stone tablets referring to Cao Cao as Emperor Wu of the Kingdom of Wei, as well as other unearthed items. Cao Cao, a native of Bozhou in Anhui , spent much of his career in Luoyang , Henan, and died in AD220 at the age of 66 after helping to unite much of northern China during the Three Kingdoms' period. He was made an emperor after his death, implying that his tomb should have been well marked, but its whereabouts remained one of China's biggest mysteries. The claim by the Henan authorities has its opponents. One is Li Luping , a specialist in calligraphy and painting appraisals from Nanjing , Jiangsu , who maintained that a stone tablet excavated from the tomb cannot be real because relics from that period bear a certain Chinese character, and the tablet's character in the lower left corner is different. Other academics took issue with the porcelain items recovered from the tomb, which included miniature clay pigsties, and were said to be too common for a tomb of someone of Cao Cao's status. But the most sensational accusation came from Yan Peidong, a scholar from Hebei who specialises in Three Kingdoms' culture. His field investigation led him to allege that the tomb had been empty since 2005, due to repeated theft, and that the recently 'recovered' items were bought from counterfeiters by Pan Weibin , the leader of the archaeological team that received 2.3 million yuan to excavate the tomb. Ni Fangliu, a self-taught specialist in tomb theft and an opponent of the Henan authorities' claim, said he had suggested more work be done before rushing to a conclusion. To him, the fact excavators had failed to present items such as the original stone tablets bearing inscriptions identifying the person, seals, or books of condolence, was telling. 'I can now say for sure that the whole excavation is a fraud,' Ni said. 'The more I looked into the way they handled the tomb, the more I was convinced that it was a scam.' One of the main reasons, he said, was that the tomb's layout suggested that it would not be for a person of Cao Cao's status. Ni and 22 other scholars issued a four-point consensus in August condemning what they perceived as gross irregularities in the excavation work and calling for higher authorities to get to the bottom of the issue. In the court of public opinion, an online survey by mainland internet portal QQ.com showed about 80 per cent of 42,137 respondents said they believed the tomb was not that of Cao Cao. The Henan authorities' hasty announcement was made near the end of 2009 even as excavation work at the tomb was still ongoing. A subsequent excavation of an adjacent tomb in June, which proponents had hoped would help defuse scepticism, failed to produce any crucial items, and lent more weight to critics. However, the controversy did not stop the 'discovery' from being listed in June as one of top 10 archaeological findings of last year, as decided by a panel of archaeologists appointed by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the China Archaeology Association and 63 accredited archeological teams nationwide. Respected archaeologist Xu Pingfang, who voted against the listing decision, told mainland media a conclusion the tomb was Cao Cao's could not be made based on current excavation. 'Evidence is of utmost importance in archaeology. A tomb that has been raided should not have been listed as an archaeological discovery,' added Xu. But the doubts of mainstream archaeologists such as Xu have been muffled, and the Henan team and the provincial cultural heritage authorities have dismissed other critics as untrained amateurs. Liu Xinchang , a Hebei professor who specialises in research on Cao Cao's legacy, said the resounding public scepticism over the official verdict on the tomb was not because of public ignorance of archaeological research, but because of the mishandling of the excavation and misidentification of items recovered from the tomb. 'The irregularities in the way in which they reached their conclusion would have a direct impact on the credibility of such finding,' Liu said. Wang Wei , director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Archaeology has refrained from endorsing the Henan finding outright, although he tends to believe it is Cao Cao's tomb. But as the controversy rages on, another more basic issue has arisen - one that has less to do with the principles of archaeological research and more to do with the integrity of the academics involved and the credibility of the government. And that war of words is becoming nasty. For example, a campaign launched largely by Henan media - mouthpieces of the government - targeted Yan, the Hebei scholar. The reports claim Yan has falsified his credentials, and that none of four titles he claimed, including secretariat of UN World New Economy Research Association, is genuine. There is no such association. Ni, the theft specialist from Nanjing, was also accused of cashing in on the controversy by publishing a book in July that questions the findings in the tomb and the archaeological team's conclusions. Such accusations might carry some weight, but Ni was not the only one cashing in on the dead general. It has been reported that the Anyang city government, which administers Xigaoxue village, was discovered on to have provided financial backing for the publication of two books by Henan-based reporters in support of the official line that the tomb is that of Cao Cao, as well as another book written by the Henan archaeological team. And then there is the campaign by Anyang authorities to turn the tomb into a tourism cash cow. Some media reports have predicted potential takings of 400 million yuan a year. The city government is reported to have earmarked 60 million yuan to build a highway to the tomb's site. Although the authorities remain outwardly staunch, there are indications they are feeling a little pressure from the controversy. The opening of a museum exhibiting items from the tomb, which was scheduled for last month (admission fee, 60 yuan), has been postponed indefinitely. And a grand celebration of Cao Cao's 1,855th birthday by the Anyang authorities has been cancelled. What's more, Anyang is not the only place claiming to have found Cao Cao's tomb. Officials in Haozhou plan to submit an excavation application with higher authorities to dig up a tomb they believe belongs to Cao Cao. There is also another claimant city: Handan , in Hebei. The referee in this dispute is the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. And if that body grants the Henan site the status of a national cultural heritage site, as sought by the Henan officials, then the controversy is sure to rage on.