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Letter from Beijing: Ancient Treasures
Newly found tomb may be that of a Han king

Letter from Beijing: Ancient Treasures
Newly found tomb may be that of a Han king

Tsui Hark: 'You Have To Touch People With Film'
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Below the skyscrapers rising up around Beijing lies an ancient secret: tombs from the capital's imperial past. TIME Beijing reporter Mia Turner investigates the latest treasures unearthed by China's archaeologists and evaluates the nation's efforts to preserve its historical riches.


Every day at around midnight, a team of seven men would climb up Old Mountain on the outskirts of Beijing and dig. By the time they were caught by police last December their tunnel was 20 m deep. Dong Fusheng, the leader of the group, told police they had surveyed the area for years, suspecting that there was an ancient tomb in the vicinity. When they had decided on the location, they began their excavation. They were right. In late February archaeologists from the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau continued the dig and concluded that, not only were they on the brink of uncovering a tomb, but given the initial findings it could be the resting place of a Han dynasty king.

The Chinese press has picked up on the discovery, speculating on the precious treasures that might be uncovered when the tomb is opened. An earlier discovery, in 1973 in Dabaotai, in the southeastern part of the capital, uncovered the tomb of Liu Jian, who ruled the Guangyang kingdom from 73 B.C. to 45 B.C. Archaeologists suspect thieves may have broken into that tomb and stolen the jade coat he was buried in. (During the Han dynasty, emperors and kings were buried in jade coats with gold thread, which were believed to give them spiritual and physical protection.)

Historians believe the newest discovery could be the tomb of Liu Dan, ruler of the Yan kingdom and the father of Liu Jian. After ruling for 38 years, the elder Liu committed suicide. His wife and servants went with him to the grave. The tomb, says Wang Wuyu, an archaeologist from the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau, appears to have been untouched by grave robbers.

According to Wang, tombs are found all the time in the Beijing area as the city undergoes a massive building boom. Most are excavated, however, and the construction goes on. "Tombs cannot stop economic development," says Wang.

Wang and other archaeologists say they knew about the tomb in Old Mountain but could not get official permission or funding to excavate. Thanks to Dong and his grave robbers, however, permission was granted earlier this year.

The site is currently under tight police protection, and the tomb is expected to be opened this summer. Archaeologists are trying to dampen the media hype by hinting that the tomb may have few kingly treasures, while assuring that it will be an important find historically and could be turned into a museum later.

Archaeologists also hope that the find will heighten awareness of the need the protect cultural relics. "The most urgent task for us is to reverse the opinion that we can ... pull down relics to make way for economic development," Song Xinchao of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics was quoted as saying last week.

China introduced a Relics Protection Law in 1982 under which construction companies are made responsible for protecting relics. While there are few cases in which such discoveries have been demolished intentionally, says Song, there has been major damage to such sites. In February contractors building a section of the Guangzhou Beierhuan Expressway refilled 10 caves that were part of an archaeological site where pre-Qin dynasty relics had been discovered. The contractors were reportedly ordered to stop building and write an apology to the Guangzhou Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute last week.

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