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Tomb raiders ‘spotted’ from space, satellite data reveals looting of archaeological sites

File photo – Prehistoric works of art typical of the artifacts found in the early iron age graves. (Trevor Wallace)

Scientists are the use of high-resolution satellite imagery to identify places where looters are ransacking ancient tombs.

The graves are in a remote part of northwest China, according to experts from the University of Bern in Switzerland and the University of Sydney.

“Due to the large number of clearly affected burial mounds, it becomes clear that the largest part of the cultural heritage of the Early iron age in this area is under threat,” explain the researchers in a study published in the journal Heritage. “The roof, however, remains until the day of today.”

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“We specifically chose an area of interest in Xinjiang, China. We assumed that, due to the distance and the heavy presence of security forces in the region, we would find a greater proportion of the intact graves,” said Gino Caspari, of the Institute of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bern, in a statement.

A recently plundered grave in the Northwest of China (Trevor Wallace)

However, the satellite data show that looters had already gained access to most of the counts. “More than 74.5 percent of the analyzed tombs were destroyed and plundered,” Gaspari explained.

Ancient nomadic tribes in the region would bury their dead in large mounds, often with gold jewelry and elaborate weapons, making an attractive target for tomb raiders.

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Gaspari studied satellite data going back to 2003 showed that since then, the number of graves being plundered is significantly increased. “The last untouched archaeological sites of the ancient steppe nomads under threat”, he said in the statement.

Archaeologists also carried out on the basis of surveys for the measurement of the extent of the destruction.

Satellite data can be a valuable tool for archaeologists. Experts, for example, have used spy satellite images and drones to help the site of an ancient, lost city in the North of Iraq.

Researchers have also trawled through satellite images in the search for Viking settlements in North America.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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