Veteran archaeologist Zhu Zhongxi couldn't believe the "irony" when Gansu provincial authorities announced their bids for the country's 2006 ten most important archaeological discoveries with two ancient graves unearthed recently.
The discoveries of the graves, one dating back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) and the other to ancestors of China's first emperor Qinshihuang, "were actually not archaeological achievements, but the result of rampant grave robbery", said Zhu, director of the archaeological institute of Gansu.
The Warring States grave in Zhangjiachuan county was discovered last August when local police caught grave robbers who had unearthed an ancient tomb, that had remained hidden for more than 2,000 years.
By mid December, archaeologists had excavated from the grave more than 500 pieces of items of gold, silver, bronze, iron, bone and porcelain as well as more than 800 other decorated relic pieces.
The same thing happened at Dabaozi Mountain of Lixian county, which was believed to be the graveyard of Qinshihuang's ancestors. The tombs there suffered serious destruction and theft in the 1990s until archaeological and security departments stepped in.
"Before the Dabaozi Mountain was torn open by the grave robbers, local cultural departments had no idea at all there were cultural relics," said Chu Shibin, a researcher at the Gansu Provincial Museum.
As one of the earliest sites of Chinese civilization and a key pass on the ancient Silk road, Gansu is estimated to have more than 20,000 sites of unmovable cultural relics.
Most of the ancient relics are located in remote areas or poverty-stricken counties, where no effective monitoring and protective network has been set up due to limited funding and low awareness.
"Only when the relics are damaged or stolen, can local authorities allocate money to remedy the situation," said an expert who declined to be named.
Experts point out that limited funds, incomplete mapping and surveys of cultural relic sites also give grave robbers opportunities.
Statistics from the Gansu provincial public security authority said the province had recorded 170 cases from 1998 to 2005, arresting 1,283 people and seizing 1,959 pieces of cultural relics.
"Most of the criminals are quite conversant with cultural relics and are well equipped and trained," sources with the public security bureau said. The grave robbers have even formed chains with members responsible for stealing, transferring, selling and smuggling.
Archaeologists say grave robbers are better equipped than them. "They use global positioning systems and radar for communication. They have specialized vehicles and even their weapons are better," Chu said.
The great profit to be had from cultural relics has attracted more criminals to take the risks, especially farmers who live near historic sites and are desperate for money.
It has been reported that at certain places in the province, farmers viewed grave robbery as a family sideline during slack seasons, which was tacitly consented to by local officials as a "way to increase income and get out of poverty".
The authorities have stepped up efforts to protect cultural relics, including more funding, public education and rigorous prosecution of the violators, but to limited effect.
"Compared with the grave robbers, who are playing a 'guerrilla war', the administrative departments are slow in response. Archaeologists, very often, cannot catch up with the grave robbers," Chu said.
Facing the serious situation, some experts began to doubt China's traditional approach in cultural relics protection.
"Chinese experts have always believed that to keep the relics buried is the best way to protect them, so many underground historic relics were not known and discovered until they were unearthed by robbers," said Ma Wenzhi, former director of the Gansu provincial cultural relic bureau.
"It has been proved such an approach doesn't work well under the new situation. The monitoring and protective system needs to be improved urgently," said Ma.