for National Geographic News
A group accused of operating clandestine mines across an important but sparsely guarded complex of neolithic Chinese culture is now facing criminal trial, Chinese government officials say.
The illicit iron-ore mines, accompanied by crude on-site refining facilities, seriously defaced the Niuheliang site, which holds some of China's earliest known temples, altars, sacred sculptures, and stargazing structures, according to the officials.
"Criminal charges in the case are now being finalized by the local people's procuratorate," said a judicial official at the Chaoyang People's Court in northeastern China, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.
He declined to provide any more details, and officials at the Chaoyang City People's Government and at the local cultural-heritage bureau declined to comment on the case.
China's cultural relics law automatically makes important archaeological discoveries and cultural sites state property, while its criminal law provides for prison terms of three to ten years for those who intentionally damage cultural heritage sites under state protection.
Reports in China's government-run press also hinted that miners were working with some local administrators, 14 of whom are now being investigated by prosecutors.
5,000-Year-Old Treasure Trove
Chinese archaeologists began excavating the Niuheliang neolithic site—located in the northeastern province of Liaoning in Manchuria—in the 1980s. (See photos of Manchuria.)
Their work unearthed a 19-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) complex of religious ritual architecture decorated with mural paintings; jade carvings of humans, dragons, and tortoises; and elaborate stone tombs on hills throughout the site.
Long-abandoned circular temples and astronomical structures were also discovered.
The finds prompted China's government in 1996 to apply to have site inscribed on the United Nations' World Heritage List, though no decision has yet been made. (Related: "Best, Worst World Heritage Sites Ranked" [November 15, 2006].)
Since then, three dozen state-run and private mines were ordered closed, 10,000 people were relocated out of the region, and a small staff of sentries were deployed to guard the site's perimeter.
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