BEIJING — Farmers looted jades, bronzes and other treasures from tombs up to 2,000 years old in western China before the sites were discovered by authorities, a local official and media said Thursday.
Villagers unearthed about 50 tombs in Bieli, a town in Sichuan province, and a local museum director said they were believed to date to the Eastern Han dynasty some 20 centuries ago, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
By the time authorities found the tombs two months ago, only bottles and less valuable objects remained, said the official of the provincial Administration Bureau of Cultural Relics. The official would give only his surname, He.
Authorities have since retrieved coins and other treasures from farmers' homes but are searching for other items, which may have been sold outside the area, He said.
Police have detained those suspected of leading the pillaging and are hunting for the buyers, he said. The other farmers would be spared punishment.
"Almost all the families in nearby villages were involved," he said by telephone. "They thought the tombs were the property of the finders."
Xinhua said "frenzied looting" began after a farmer identified only by the surname Li dug up a green, delicately carved brick. It said Li found a bronze animal sculpture and coins in the first tomb.
The area is in the valley of the Miangjiang river, which flows into the Yangtze.
The story contrasted sharply with a report Thursday in a Beijing newspaper, Beijing Weekend, about farmers in the northern province of Shaanxi who unearthed a trove of bronze vessels dating back 29 centuries but reported the finding to authorities. The bronze cauldrons and other artifacts are now on display in Beijing, and the farmers were lauded for their honesty.
"We just did what we should do," Beijing Weekend quoted one farmer as saying.