175 'tomb raiders' caught pillaging Stone Age archaeological site in China

Ancient relics worth 500 million yuan recovered by the police in what state media says was biggest case of its kind in the country in modern history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 10:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 3:55pm

Police in northeastern China have caught 175 looters who pillaged a Neolithic archaeological site.

The Ministry of Public Security announced that the operation recovered 1,168 cultural relics worth more than 500 million yuan (HK$630 million) taken from the stone age remains.

The looters are suspected of illegally excavating in Niuheliang, a site in northeastern Liaoning province that includes ancient tombs.

The state-run news agency Xinhua described it as the biggest case of its kind since the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The authorities found artifacts such as a coiled jade dragon, which is one of the earliest known representations of the mythological creature.

The ministry said the looters were split into 10 gangs that handled everything from site excavation to sales.

Four archeologists are suspected of taking part in the tomb raids and selling the stolen artifacts, Xinhua said.

The public security ministry statement did not say when the recovery operation took place.

More than 1,000 police from six provinces took part in the operation.

A suspect interviewed by Jiangsu Television said that tasks within the group were carefully delegated, with some doing the excavating, others retrieving the treasure, and others providing lookout.

An agent from the ministry told the China News Service that looters and tomb robbers had become more specialised in recent years.

The report noted that the criminals used sophisticated digging tools, detectors, and even 3D detection tools.

The report also touched on the difficulties different departments faced while working together to solve crimes: for example, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage had no powers of arrest, while the Ministry of Security could not evaluate the heritage of stolen relics.