Ancient tombs along “south silk road” link cultures, attract thieves

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In the silent mountains of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, an old Tibetan man herds his sheep near the 1,500-year-old tombs to protect them from grave robbers. 

Tuyuhun tomb from the Tang Dynasty period in the Qaidam Basin on the Tibetan plateau [Credit: Dandebat]

“The robbers used to be quite rampant here, and who knows how much treasure they stole, but it really hurts when I think about it,” said Shihorgya, the 55-year-old grave keeper of the 2,000 tombs in Reshui Village in Dulan County in Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. 

Growing up in the remote village, Shihorgya used to be a herd boy, sitting on the hills, staring at the tombs and wondering what secrets were buried there.

In the 1980s, the ancient tombs were identified as being built during the Tuyuhun Kingdom (417A.D.-688A.D.). They were listed as one of the top six national archaeology discoveries of the year in 1983, and listed as one of the national key units of cultural relics protection in 1996.

As the connection between ancient central China and ancient Tibet, the Tuyuhung Kingdom was on the South Silk Road, which was unimpeded after the 7th century as the empire had been protecting the trade passage with their castles and daks, while the Silk Road in northern China was blocked by wars and riots, said Xu Xingguo, an archeologist at the Archaeology Institute of Qinghai Province, who is in charge of the excavation of the graves.

“The empire played an important role to protect the communication and trade between the two places, and the countless cultural relics are of great value,” Xu said.

In front of Shihorgya’s home, a nine-floored tomb was identified to be the most magnificent large imperial tomb belonging to Empire of Tuyuhun, which was built in the eagle-shaped mountains. It had been robbed before the archaeologists arrived.

The archaeological work was launched in 1983, but thieves remained rampant at the end of 2000, said Han Musheng, director of cultural bureau of Dulan County. Just in the year 2000, robbers raided 130 graves, he added.

“Robbers took everything they could get their hands on–they let nothing pass,” Han said.

Logs of cypress used in Tuyuhun burial mounds [Credit: Dandebat]

The tombs are praised to be “Tibetan-Han Civilization Pyramid,” as hundreds of thousands of cultural relics from ancient central China and the Tibet have been unearthed here, Xu said.

“The graves are solid history that show the amalgamation of Tibetan people and Han people,” Xu said.

Thousands of pieces of silk were discovered here, which still have clear patterns and bright colors.

The architect style of the tombs as well as the silk patterns are all in Tang Dynasty style, which means they were widely used in Yuyuhun and Tibetan areas, Xu said.

Special patterns that include birds and other animals were adopted in the silk patterns, and Chinese characters can be seen on the unearthed relics, he said.

As robbers continued to threaten site, the county’s government has launched a series of measures to stop them, Han said.

More than 30 administers have been recruited among the locals by the county’s government to patrol in the mountains and report suspects, Han said.

“The measures have been effective,” he said. “They caught five robbers last year.”

In addition, more than 2 million yuan (308,000 U.S. dollars) has been provided to build a protection station for the graves, and video supervision systems and earth-wave detectors will be installed, Han said.

Barrel-drains and fences will be built for the large graves and trees will be planted in the treeless mountains.

Some of the cultural relics were kept in the cultural relics administration within the police station.

“It might be the only police station that guards cultural relics,said Mao Lansheng, director of the administration.

A protection center with a new museum opened in May in the county and exhibited more than 200 precious relics, Mao said.

“We want to open a window to the Han, Tibet and Tuyuhun cultures, to let the world know more about the history of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau,” he said. 

Authors: Ji Shaoting, Chen Guozhou and Hu Xing | Source: Xinhuanet [July 11, 2011]

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