Cultural heritage super cop solves scores of cold cases

Ding Li, a policeman on a mission against cultural relic crimes, demonstrates the powerful outcome when passion meets profession.

At 50, the ardent archaeology enthusiast has solved more than 260 cases,

apprehended 230 suspects involved in tomb raiding and the illegal cultural relic trade, and reclaimed over 13,000 artifacts in just three years.

"The cultural relics retrieved by Ding rival the holdings of a medium-sized museum," says his colleague Wu Qiang in East China's Jiangsu province.

Amiable, mild-mannered, and talkative, Ding may not initially strike people as a figure that would instill fear in grave robbers.

However, fueled by a passion for cultural relics, this police officer from Xuzhou city, Jiangsu, integrates modern technology into his policing, solving a series of previously unsolved tomb raiding cases.

Ding's hometown, Xuzhou, which was known as Pengcheng during the Han Dynasty (206 BC — AD 220), was the burial site of kings from the Chu Kingdom. These mausoleums received national protection in 1996.

In 2010, a mausoleum on Woniu Mountain was looted — a crime that remained unsolved for over a decade due to a lack of leads.

"The emergency excavation yielded over 1,000 cultural items from the tomb. The stolen relics, often more exquisite, hold significant importance for studying the history of Xuzhou," Ding says.

He reviewed 20 years of cases related to State-protected cultural heritage sites in Xuzhou, leading the development of a tomb raider database with on-site investigation materials and support from colleagues skilled in big data.

Unexpectedly, this effort led him to identify a group of suspects in various tomb-raiding cases, including the main suspect in the Woniu Mountain mausoleum looting.

During the nationwide crackdown on cultural relic crimes starting in August 2020, Xuzhou Public Security Bureau established a studio for Ding, a genuine cross-disciplinary expert.

Well-versed in Han Dynasty stone reliefs, he played a key role in recovering two valuable pieces, arresting 11 tomb raiders in 20-plus days, and solving a long-standing case in neighboring Anhui province.

In a separate instance, his sharp investigative skills led to the discovery of a bow-shaped object in an inconspicuous corner of an antiques store, ultimately dismantling a tomb-raiding gang posing as archaeologists.

Ding's backstory is no less interesting.

His passion for cultural artifacts began in Xuzhou, which was once a vibrant center for ancient coin trading.

In primary school, he started collecting ancient coins and explored antique markets and bookstores dedicated to ancient texts during his college years.

"Cultural relics serve as witnesses and carriers of history. When you delve deep into the history of a city, your love for it grows, and you become increasingly driven to reclaim its lost cultural artifacts," he says.

The intricate network of grave robbers poses unique challenges, requiring a deep understanding of historical contexts and criminal tactics.

Ding's 90-square-meter basement is a literature treasure trove, housing approximately 13,000 books on cultural relics and archaeology.

After he became a police officer, he delved into cultural artifact forgery methods and studied the covert language used by looters, to crack cultural heritage crime cases.

Ding has shared his strategies for combating tomb raiders in journals to inspire his fellow police officers.

"I want to apply modern criminal investigation techniques to solve more unsolved cultural relic cases, and ensure that stolen treasures are reclaimed and brought back into the light," he says.