The Spirit of Taking: Chinese Tomb Raiders Learn from Online Archaeologists

The Spirit of Taking: Chinese Tomb Raiders Learn from Online Archaeologists
Photo Credit:Yves Herman/Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Grave robbers in central China are learning their trade from well-meaning amateurs over livestream platforms.

Livestreamed excavations are growing in popularity in China, sparking concerns that they could be used as instructional tools for tomb raiders, according to state-owned newspaper Legal Daily.

The hobbyists typically stream from excavation sites, where they show off ancient relics and give step-by-step guides for how to use each item in an archaeologist’s toolkit. Though the videos are not geographically tagged, most are shot in central China — especially Henan province, which has an unenviable reputation as a hotbed for grave robbers and tomb raiders.

When Legal Daily’s reporters sat in on one archaeology enthusiast’s livestream, several spectators eagerly inquired about the location of the burial site in the video and the ideal time of day to set out for a dig. The livestreamer would not answer these questions publicly, but rather encouraged his viewers to contact him privately on messaging app WeChat.

In a short video viewed by Sixth Tone on Kuaishou, a popular livestreaming platform, the host holds an antique-looking coin, still partially covered in soil, between his fingers, declaring that it was “unearthed in an old house” and came “from the age of Xianfeng,” a 19th-century Qing Dynasty emperor. The account, called “Little Tiger Archeological Team,” has over 370,000 subscribers.

Cui Zheng, a spokeswoman for Kuaishou, told Sixth Tone on Dec. 28 that the company is screening content related to unlicensed excavations but did not have data available.

In China, all buried artifacts — whether underground or underwater — belong to the state, and unlicensed digging is punishable by fines and prison sentences, generally from three to 10 years. In the country’s most extreme case, Yao Yuzhong, the leader of a notorious gang of 225 grave robbers, was sentenced to death in October of this year for ransacking relics valued at 500 million yuan (US$76 million).In its report, Legal Daily takes particular issue with livestreamed tutorials on how to use the Luoyang shovel, a tool with a narrow, semicircular blade named after one of China’s ancient capitals that is commonly used to gauge whether soil has previously been disturbed — and thus the likelihood of discovering buried treasures.

“The Luoyang shovel is like a divining rod for China’s archaeologists, and it’s both easy and common to use,” Xi Muliang, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology from Peking University, told Sixth Tone. Xi explained that because the tool is so widely associated with archaeology — and because all unlicensed excavating is illegal — its availability to the public is a problem.

On Thursday, Sixth Tone found Luoyang shovels available on online marketplace Taobao for under 100 yuan.

“Some people [who watch the livestreams] may not be aware of the cultural relics law,” Xi said, explaining that only trained experts with permits from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage can conduct excavations. But with the rising popularity of amateur videos, Xi added, viewers may try to put the techniques they learn into practice, putting archaeological sites at risk of being damaged.

China has seen a rise in tomb-raiding in recent years, and this may have something to do with the wildly popular series “The Lost Tomb” and “Ghost Blows Out the Light,” both of which started as online fiction before becoming printed books and, eventually, TV shows and movies. According to a commentary also published in Legal Daily, these works romanticize — and thereby encourage — grave-robbing.

Xi, who also runs a new media platform called “What’s Been Dug Up,” said archaeology should be made less arcane and more accessible: that people should be able to rely on experts and recognized authorities instead of amateurs recording on their phones.

“By moving in this direction, people will come to understand what real archaeology is,” Xi said. “It’s not just about digging things out of the ground — there are principles that must be followed, too.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston