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8 January 2012
China's tomb raiders

China's extraordinary historical treasures are under threat from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated tomb raiders. The thieves use dynamite and even bulldozers to break into the deepest chambers, and night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search them. The size and value of the relics demonstrates the audacity of the raiders - last year, Chinese authorities recovered a 27-tonne sarcophagus stolen from Xi'an and shipped to the USA.
     "Before, China had a large number of valuable ancient tombs and although it was really depressing to see a tomb raided, it was still possible to run into a similar one in the future," said Professor Wei Zheng, an archaeologist at Peking University. "Nowadays too many have been destroyed. Once one is raided, it is really difficult to find a similar one. Archaeologists are now simply chasing after tomb raiders."
     With thousands of sites - many in remote locations - the scope of China's heritage poses a particular challenge. The problem became worse as China's economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves. One researcher estimated that 100,000 people were involved in the trade nationally.
     Luo Xizhe of the Shaanxi provincial cultural relics bureau told China Daily: "If we don't take immediate and effective steps to protect these artefacts, there will be none of these things left to protect in 10 years." Police have already stepped up their campaign against the criminals and the government is devoting extra resources to protecting sites and tracing offenders. This year it set up a national information centre to tackle such crimes.

Edited from The Guardian (1 January 2012)

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