Tomb robbery starts with discovering the accurate location of a tomb, followed by excavation and clearing which requires special expertise and skills. In most cases, locating the exact position of a target tomb is the most difficult job. The robbers often have very accurate positioning of the target tombs, police said.
Wu Ya, deputy head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Anhui Province, told NewsChina that police officers discovered tomb raiders use old county annals in which detailed locations of tombs are noted. They also use antique atlases which specify the longitude and latitude of tombs. Some tomb raiders are good at astrology and feng shui, an ancient superstition that advocates living in harmony with the natural world, that continues to be used today to find the perfect location for a burial site.
In 2018, Huainan police arrested 19 people suspected of looting the ancient Wuwangdun Tomb where Wu Wang, founder of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) was buried. The tomb is 16 meters tall, occupying a space of 5,840 square meters. The gang, who used explosives to access the tomb, was helped by Xia Yuzhen, from Qixian County, Henan Province. Xia, a mastermind behind many tomb heists, was the technical adviser to the robbers due to his adroit tomb detection expertise, using feng shui, probe measurement and knowledge of the positioning of coffin chambers. The tomb was first looted in 2015, with the robbers returning twice for more artifacts. The haul included bronze tigers and bronze chimes.
Zhu Fenghan, a professor at the History Department of Peking University, told NewsChina that ancient tombs were located in what was considered an ideal place according to feng shui principles, such as adjoining mountains or rivers.
Today’s tomb robbers use sophisticated devices such as detonators, homemade explosives, elevators, infrared night vision devices and intercoms. Huang Shengzhong, head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan PSB, told our reporter that after accumulating enough information and doing reconnaissance, tomb raiders would set up hidden cameras to reconnoiter ahead of their operation.
Yang Yong, head of the Criminal Investigation Brigade of Xiejiaji District PSB in Huainan, said that when he first joined the force in the 1990s, tomb raiders would wait for a thunderstorm to cover the sound of explosives. At that time, they dug with shovels so it took one or two months for a tomb to be excavated. Now it only takes a few days.
In October 2018, Huainan police learned that the gang that raided Wuwangdun Tomb were targeting the tomb of Lian Po, a prominent general from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). Police sent more than 80 officers to the provinces of Henan, Shandong and Shanxi to track down suspects. Police eventually nabbed 16 unskilled diggers, three liaisons, one technician, one salesman and three investors, eradicating an entire chain of tomb robbery in the region.
Huang Shengzhong, head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan PSB, is experienced in combating cultural relic crimes. He told our reporter that the provinces of Henan, Shaanxi and Shanxi, which lie in the Yellow River basin, a cradle of ancient Chinese civilization, are most prone to tomb robbery due to the abundance of cultural relics. Perpetrators have become increasingly professional and act as a gang.
“They form an acquaintance network and keep in touch across the country,” he told NewsChina. “After the specific location of a tomb is discovered, several gangs usually show up.”
In early 2019, 15 tomb robbery gangs who excavated Taosi North Cemetery in Shanxi Province were eliminated, with 138 criminals arrested and 215 artifacts recovered, including several first-class ones. More than 7 million yuan (US$1m) in assets were frozen and 144 vehicles seized.
Han Zhihui, head of the Linfen Investigation Center of Cultural Relic Crimes under the Shanxi Provincial Public Security Department, told NewsChina that these gangs have distinct levels and clear divisions of labor. People working in different levels do not know each other. Police officers told our reporter that liaisons, who have wide connections, play a key role in the hierarchy of gangs.
“If they discover artifacts in a tomb, the diggers immediately leave, and specialists in cultural relic identification clear out the pit,” he said.