Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Silk Road Theft Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Jarrett A. Lobell

In the remote Lop Nur desert of northwest China, ancient tombs have been ransacked for the second time in two years. A team of archaeologists on an expedition to the area reportedly encountered the tomb robbers and followed their trail back to a previously unknown mausoleum from the Loulan Kingdom, an important stop along the Silk Road, that flourished more than two millennia ago. Inside the 90-foot-high domed mausoleum were high-quality silks, colored coffins, and an extraordinary mural depicting geometric patterns and a gold and a silver camel fighting each other, all of which were damaged by the looters. Mummies were desecrated and scattered bones thrown from the tombs. Although it is still too early to be certain, the quality of the grave goods and the rarity of the funerary architecture suggest that the mausoleum may be royal--or even belong to one of the Loulan kings, whose tombs have never been found. While investigations into the robbery continue, the local heritage administration now faces the tremendous challenge of preserving these unique tombs, which are clearly a popular target for looters. Because of the size of the area in which the tombs are located (they are spread across 25 acres) and the sparse population of this region of China, this will be an extremely difficult task.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America