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July 15, 2011

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Grave undertaking to guard Tibetan-Han tombs

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

"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," says Shihorgya, the 55-year-old grave keeper of the 2,000 tombs in Reshui Village in Dulan County. The graves are located in Qinghai Province's Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Robbery is down but thieves still threaten the site, so officials have organized patrols and will construct fencing and set up video surveillance and ground-motion detectors.

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

In the 1980s, the ancient tombs were identified as having being built during the Tuyuhun Kingdom (417-688). They were one of China's top six archeological discoveries of 1983 and placed under national relics protection in 1996.

As the connection between ancient central China and ancient Tibet, the Tuyuhun Kingdom was on the South Silk Road, which was unobstructed after the 7th century since the empire had been protecting the trade passage with fortresses and message relay stations, while the Silk Road in northern China was impassable because of wars and riots, says archeologist Xu Xingguo. Xu, from the Archaeology Institute of Qinghai Province, is in charge of grave excavation.

"The empire played an important role in protecting communication and trade between the two places, and the countless cultural relics are of great value," Xu says.

In front of grave keeper Shihorgya's home is a nine-floored tomb, considered to be the most magnificent imperial tomb of the Empire of Tuyuhun. It was built into the mountain and had been robbed before archeologists arrived.

Excavation began in 1983, but robbery was still rampant at the end of 2000, says Han Musheng, director of the cultural bureau of Dulan County. In the year 2000 alone, robbers raided 130 graves, he says.

"Robbers took everything they could get their hands on - they missed nothing," he says.

The tombs area is known as the "Tibetan-Han Civilization Pyramid," since hundreds of thousands of relics from central China and the Tibet have been unearthed there.

"The graves are solid history that show the amalgamation of Tibetan people and Han people," Xu says.

Archeologists discovered thousands of pieces of silk, still bearing clear patterns in bright colors.

The architectural style of the tombs and the silk patterns are both in Tang Dynasty (618-907) style, which means they were widely used in Tuyuhun and Tibetan areas, Xu says. Silk patterns feature birds and other animals and some relics bear Chinese characters.

Because robbers still threaten the site, the county government is trying to stop by setting up patrols by more than 30 people who monitor the area and report suspects," Han says.

"The measures have been effective, they caught five robbers last year," he says.

In addition, more than 2 million yuan (US$308,000) has been spent to build a protection station for the graves and video surveillance and earth-wave detectors will be installed, he says.

Large graves will be protected by fences and storm water drainage systems. Trees will be planted in treeless areas to prevent erosion.

Some relics are housed in the cultural relics administration within the local police precinct.

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

In May, the county opened a new museum and protection center exhibiting more than 200 relics.

"We want to open a window on the Han, Tibetan and Tuyuhun cultures, to let the world know more about the history of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau," he says.


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