China's archeological treasures are being looted almost as soon as they are discovered, according to the man in charge of excavations at the country's most recent and possibly largest imperial find.
Wang Xueli, deputy director of the Shaanxi Archaeology Institute in central China, told foreign journalists that modern-day tomb robbers were raiding unexcavated sites and leaving in luxury cars before flying out of the historically rich province.
The capital of Shaanxi Province, Xian, was China's ancient capital and is best known as home to the famous terra-cotta army, found by accident 16 years ago.
In March this year, workers building a highway for Xian's new airport made another extraordinary discovery, stumbling upon a 2,100-year-old network of underground vaults that contain tens of thousands of pottery warriors.
Two feet tall, the sculptures are one-third the size of the nearby terra-cotta army and are part of the burial site of Jingdi, a Han dynasty emperor who ruled from 157 BC to 141 BC.
Wang and his team of five archeologists and up to 80 laborers have so far excavated just about 50 square yards. But already 300 warriors have been found, prompting speculation in the Chinese media that the entire site--more than 25 acres--could contain between 40,000 and 100,000 figures, far surpassing the 8,000-strong terra-cotta army.
No foreigners have been allowed to visit the site--about 12 miles from Xian. But in an interview with foreign journalists, Wang said the site was protected at night by local police. With 72 imperial tombs in Shaanxi province and none of them excavated--only the adjoining areas--Wang said tomb robbing had been a problem throughout history and continued today. Wang also made a plea for foreign money and experts to help China pursue more active archeology, rather than rely on farmers or road workers to discover sites accidentally.
If foreigners want to contribute, they will be welcome, he said.
But they are not welcome to the central authorities in Beijing. Any foreign archeologist wanting to work in China must get approval from the most senior level of government, the State Council. An official refused to say how many applications had been received but said not one had been approved.
Wang said he did not know when the public will be able to see the latest discovery. But if the current pace of excavation is any guide, it will be many years before the little warriors are displayed.