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Following a grave robber to his noble ancestor's tomb

A great discovery of 1,000-year-old relics was made by tracking the modern grave robbers who had plundered before and were returning to the scene of the crime. Archeologists found the tomb of the legendary literati considered the "father of Chinese archeology." Yu Fei uncovers the story.

Covered by a wheat field and a peach orchard, the 1,000-year-old graveyard had belonged to a noble's family during China's Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Archeologists found it the same way they had found countless others: They followed in the steps of grave robbers.

One of the tombs was buried extra deep and had a special design, and it quickly aroused the archeologists' curiosity. But at that point, they had no idea they had just discovered the tomb of Lu Dalin, the ancient bronzeware expert considered the "father of Chinese archeology."

The discovery of the Lu family's 1,000-year-old graveyard in Wulitou Village, Lantian County, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, has been selected by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Archeology as one of the six most important archeological discoveries in China in 2009.

Archeologists excavated 29 of the tombs between March 2006 and December 2009, covering 88,000 square meters. But they knew it was tomb M2 that was special.

When they had dug 3.6 meters down, they discovered the burial chamber. But they were puzzled to find there was no coffin, bones or funeral objects in the chamber. They continued digging down and found another burial chamber at a depth of 10.7 meters directly under the first one. But it, too, was empty.

It wasn't until they had dug down 12.5 meters that they found the third chamber with a decayed coffin inside. But the bones in the coffin appeared disturbed.

"It was the first time I had seen a tomb like this. I guess it was designed that way to prevent burglary," says Zhang Yun, a leading archeologist at Shaanxi Province's Institute of Archaeology.

"Obviously, those who built the tomb made a great effort to prevent robbery. For instance, they made the entrance to the tomb passage very small, so that it was hard to find from the surface. And the real chamber lay under a layer of gravel, which made it especially difficult to find," Zhang adds.

Who was buried in the tomb especially designed to prevent being robbed?

The archeologists found his name on the funeral objects, a name known to all Chinese archeologists: Lu Dalin.

First archeologist

The archeologists discovered that five generations of the Lu family, including Lu Dalin himself and his brothers, were interred in the graveyard between 1074 to 1111. Historical documents show that three of Lu Dalin's brothers were high-ranking officials in the Northern Song Dynasty's imperial court.

Lu (1044-92) was China's earliest scholar on bronzeware and ancient inscriptions. His book, "Illustrated Research on Antiquities," laid the foundation for Chinese archeology and paleography, says Meng Fanren, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Archeology.

Lu's book covered 224 pieces of bronze, 13 jade pieces and one stone implement - all items collected by the imperial family, high-ranking officials and ordinary citizens during the Northern Song Dynasty. Dating back 3,000 years, the exquisite relics had enormous.

Lu sketched, named and catalogued each of the antiquities. He wrote an introduction to each one and recorded its discovery time and place, its size and its weight, how each item was passed down to the next generation, and how it was stored. He also wrote scholarly articles on the shape, pronunciation and meaning of the ancient characters inscribed on the bronzes.

One thousand years later, modern-day scholars still revere his work.

Lu spent most of his life studying the Confucian school of idealist philosophy. It was only in his later years he began to collect and study bronzeware. But he did not collect the relics for their own sake: Collecting was an integral part of his study of ancient culture and thought.

But much to the modern archeologists' surprise, they didn't find any bronze pieces in the tomb of the ancient bronzeware expert.

"We found more than 70 antique objects in his tomb, but most of them were porcelain. We thought the objects he was buried with would have included the bronzeware he loved. And so we guessed they had already been stolen by grave robbers," says Zhang.

"His burial objects include an ink-slab and a set of stone Chinese chess pieces, which shows that he was a typical ancient scholar. The porcelains were exquisite, the good taste and the elegant life he would have led," Zhang says.

Grave robbers

Lu must have known that his tomb would become a target for grave robbers. That is likely why he had his tomb specially designed and built. Still, the special precautions did not stop the robbers.

"At first we thought Lu Dalin's tomb hadn't been robbed. But when we opened the third chamber, we found a hole in the west wall. The hole was so small that only one person could pass through it. The hole was connected with two neighboring tombs. The robbers must have been very familiar with the layout of the graveyard. They raided all three tombs," Zhang says.

Experts estimate the tomb was robbed not long after the end of the Northern Song Dynasty when the graveyard was abandoned. At that time, grave robbers were not interested in porcelain. "If it had been modern-day tomb robbers, nothing would have been left," he says.

As it turned out, the person who disturbed the family's 1,000-year resting place was himself a greedy descendant of the famous scholar.

In January 2006, four tomb robbers, including Lu Fuping, were arrested by police for stealing from an ancient tomb in Lantian County. Police seized 89 antiquities at Lu Fuping's home. The robbers later led the way to the Lu family graveyard.

The items police confiscated included a bronze bowl dating back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC); a bronze incense burner; a bronze three-legged cooking vessel or ding; bronze plates and lamps dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220); and Northern Song Dynasty porcelain, according to Shi Xiaoqun, a researcher with the Shaanxi History Museum.

According experts' evaluations, three of the antiques are classified as first-class cultural relics of the state, 11 are second class and 49 are third class.

"At first we thought the cultural relics were from the tomb of Lu Dalin, because the many Western Zhou Dynasty antiques showed that the tomb owner was an antique collector. But from the inscriptions on the antiques, we found out that they were buried later than 1111. Lu Dalin died in 1092. So those antiques must have belonged to another family member," Shi says.

It was quite common for members of a noble family to collect antiques, since collection was popular in the Northern Song Dynasty.

To many people's surprise, Lu Fuping revealed that his family was descended from Lu Dalin, and that the family had stayed in the village protecting the graveyard for nearly 1,000 years.

"He said his father had often taken him to worship their ancestors outside the village when he was young. So he knew the exact location of the graveyard," says Han Qinglong, a police officer with the Public Security Bureau of Xi'an City, capital of Shaanxi Province.

Lu Fuping said he and the other robbers had spent half a year exploring the graveyard underground before choosing one of the tombs. One night, while the rest of the family was at a village wedding celebration and firecrackers were being set off, the robbers blew the top off the tomb, and that explosion was covered by the sound of firecrackers.

The robbers didn't have much time, so they only stole some of the burial objects before covering the tomb. When they came to rob it a second time, the police were waiting.

Grave robbing is a serious crime in China, and a court sentenced Lu Fuping and the other principal robber, Qiu Zhaojun, to death with a two-year reprieve in August 2006. The confiscated antiques are now on display at the Shaanxi History Museum.

"We found that most of the 29 tombs in the graveyard had been robbed at some stage," says Zhang, from Shaanxi Province's Institute of Archaeology. "During the excavation, we found signs of exploration tools. The robbers probably used equipment more advanced than those of the archeologists."

Besides the antiques, archeologists unearthed a bottle of green tea with a 2006 expiration date, a ballpoint pen, and a oil lamp inside the graveyard, Zhang adds.

Noble family

Archeologists found nearly 700 cultural relics in the graveyard, including porcelain, pottery, stone, steel, bronze, tin, gold, silver and lacquered objects.

"Most of the burial items were everyday items and reflect the living conditions of the Northern Song Dynasty noble family," Zhang says.

The delicate porcelain, including bottles, plates, bowls, cups and pots, was beautifully shaped and subtly coloreds. Many tea-drinking utensils were also unearthed, suggesting tea was a popular drink among nobles.

In a bronze vessel from the tomb of Lu Dalin's brother, Lu Dagui, archeologists found obvious traces of tea, a precious white tea loved by the Northern Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong.

Similar vessels have been found in other places, but archeologists had not been sure what it was used for. Now they know it was a container for holding brewed tea, Zhang says.

In the tomb of Qianrong, a granddaughter of Lu Dalin's brother, Lu Dafang, a small silver case containing red powder was found. The red powder was tested by a laboratory at the University of Science and Technology. The result showed it was rouge for reddening the cheeks of young women. Even after 1,000 years, the main ingredient for rouge hadn't changed.

Inside many of the tombs were stone or pottery ink-slabs, which are used to prepare and hold ink for Chinese brush calligraphy. This indicated that the buried belonged to the educated class.

"It's a great discovery of Northern Song Dynasty cultural relics. From this family graveyard, we came to understand a lot about the social and cultural life of the upper class during the dynasty," says Meng Fanren from the Academy of Social Sciences.

Some of the objects unearthed in Lu Dalin's tomb:

1. A flower-shaped glazed bowl of the Northern Song Dyansty.

2. A chrysanthemum-shaped white stone plate with a double-dragon pattern from the Northern Song Dynasty.

3. A Northern Song Dynasty glazed pot rimmed with silver.

4. A peony-patterned Northern Song Dynasty glazed vase.

5. A flower-patterned ceramic filter from the Yaozhou Kiln of the Northern Song Dynasty. Archeologist and Antiquities

Lu Dalin was the first in China to study ancient writings and bronzeware and was therefore recognized as the "forefather of Chinese anthropologists."

His book, "Illustrated Research on Antiquities," laid the foundation for Chinese archaeology and paleography. It is one of the oldest-known catalogues to systematically describe and classify ancient artifacts which were unearthed.

The book featured in writing and illustrations an assortment of 224 bronze wares, 13 jade pieces and one stone implement of government and private collections that dated from the Shang (c. 1600-1050 BC) to the Han (202 BC-220 AD) dynasties.


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