Underneath this sad little village in Henan province is the rich legacy of five millenniums of Chinese history. The nearby city of Luoyang was the capital of at least nine dynasties, and the fields of today's peasants are littered with imperial tombs. Many still hold impossibly valuable works of art buried centuries ago. Breaking into these tombs and stealing the national treasures they hold is illegal, of course. But the lure is too great for many, especially because one major haul, sold to a smuggler, can equal a year's farming income. "For kids here, tomb raiding is just like going to the bar," says Little Su, a Xiaoli doctor who put himself through medical school with the spoils of treasure hunts beneath the fields around his home. "There's nothing else to do. If you're bored one night, someone will say, hey, let's go find a tomb." The rewards of these amateur and often dangerous nocturnal expeditions are evident in Little Su's wardrobehe's long since traded in baggy peasant garb for snazzy Playboy shirts and gleaming loafersand in the incongruous mishmash of mud-brick shacks and shiny, white-tiled houses with satellite dishes lining the streets of Xiaoli. "You can tell who raided the best tombs just by looking at their houses," says Little Su. The richest citizens even have big-screen TVs and video-game machines. Little Su's favorite game? Tomb Raider.
Archaeologists like to joke that the pillaging of temples and other ancient sites is the world's second oldest profession. After all, civilizations' treasures have throughout history been looted and relooted by cat burglars and conquistadors alike. Grave robbing was even an officially recognized job description in China's Three States period during the 2nd century. But what used to be a trickle of plundered treasures has become a flood in recent years. Villagers like Little Su, who see nothing wrong in converting an untapped resource into a few modern consumer appliances, are merely the first link in a global antiquities-smuggling chain that the United Nations says rivals the drug and arms trades in scope and scale. Says Kathryn Tubb, conservator of the Institute of Archaeology at the University College of London: "It's commonly accepted by those of us who work in the field that 80% to 90% of the material on the market is illicit."
The global appetite for such relics has sparked a lawless gold rush across Asia. In the past year alone, Indian police busted a smuggling ring that allegedly stripped hundreds of temples and monuments of sculptures and frescoes, then sent them on to be sold to collectors in the U.S. and Europe; Cambodian cops seized several truckloads of priceless Khmer sculptures crudely ripped from archaeological sites in Banteay Meanchey province; and Chinese officials uncovered the theft of 158 religious statuary from a collection loaned to a museum in Chengde by the Forbidden City's Palace Museum in Beijing. Over the past five years, at least 220,000 ancient Chinese tombs have been broken into, according to estimates from China's National Cultural Relics Bureau.
The dramatic ransacking of Baghdad's national museum during the Iraq war may have grabbed headlines earlier this year, but the consistent, widespread and largely unremarked looting of Asia is far more damaging. "There is a feeling that Asia is filled with endless supplies of cultural relics," says He Shuzhong, head of Cultural Heritage Watch, a nongovernmental cultural-preservation group in Beijing. "But if the looting continues at this pace, we'll soon have nothing left to remind us of our glorious past. Baghdad was just a few weeks of destructionour heritage is experiencing a major blow every week, every month, every year."