A jade pig dragon looted by the tomb raiders (all images courtesy Chinese Ministry of Public Security)

Four archaeologists were among nearly 200 people from six Chinese provinces recently arrested for raiding ancient tombs and selling an estimated $80 million worth of antiquities on the black market, the Beijing Times reported. In a statement released Tuesday, Chinese authorities called it the biggest antiquities trafficking case since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

An archaeologist named Dengmou, who belonged to the Liaoning Institute of Archaeology, told the newspaper he was suffering financial problems when he first joined the looting ring. Though he had previously been dedicated to preserving the country’s cultural heritage, he just couldn’t resist selling a Neolithic jade “pig dragon” from the Hongshan culture that he had found. After peddling it through a middleman, he pocketed about $350,000, with which he purchased houses for himself and his parents.

The trafficking ring Dengmou worked with appears to have been led by a skilled tomb raider known only as “Yao,” who purportedly employed the principles of feng shui when looking at a site to determine where to dig. The robbers had excavated 10 burial areas, carrying away at least 1,168 artifacts that included jade and ceramic pottery, ironworks, and gold and silver objects. They worked in the dead of night at deserted wilderness sites populated centuries ago. “The signs of digging were all surrounding historic ruins, deep in the mountains, off the beaten track,” Wang Hongyan, an official at the Chaoyang City Public Security Bureau, told the Beijing Times.

The government first began investigating Yao’s ring after a June 2014 police patrol turned up signs of digging. The gang unraveled over the next nine months as more and more members were arrested. Yao himself was taken into custody on December 7 in a Chifeng City hotel. A magnifying glass and other archaeological tools were also seized at the time of his arrest.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security explained that looters have become smarter in recent years, working more covertly and using the latest technology — in this case, aside from Yao’s feng shui know-how, mineral prospecting devices had been used. According to Archaeology magazine, about 100,000 looters work in the country, and they’ve burglarized more than 400,000 graves in the past two decades alone. Most are poor peasants or farmers, which seems to suggest — as does Dengmou’s case — that better economic opportunities might prevent more recruits from joining their ranks.

h/t New York Times

One of the looted objects

One of the looted objects

One of the looted objects

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...