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BEIJING — Chinese officials have recovered more than 1,000 Stone Age artifacts worth more than $80 million as part of a drive to stamp out gangs of grave robbers pillaging the country's archaeological sites, the government announced Wednesday.

More than 170 suspects were also arrested, the country's Ministry of Public Security said on its website.

Around 1,000 police officers were involved in the sweep at the illegal excavation in Niuheliang, a 5,000-year old treasure trove in China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, according to the ministry.

The Neolithic complex, which Chinese archaeologists began excavating in the 1980s, is a sparsely guarded site that holds some of China’s earliest known sacred sculptures, temples, altars and stargazing structures, according to experts.

Among the treasures recovered from the recent operation is a coiled jade dragon, one of the earliest known representations of the mythological creature that many associate as the symbol of the Chinese race.

The looters were organized into 10 gangs that divided various tasks from digging to selling of relics, according to a report in China Daily.

The latest scandal has drawn angry comments on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service.

“Generally, our fight against crime has not been hard enough, we have lost so much Chinese treasures,” one person lamented.

“I feel ashamed for the behavior of these grave robbers, they have destroyed the study of Chinese culture,” said another.


— Eric Baculinao and Julia Zhou