A court in northern China has awarded death sentence to the head of the country's most prolific tomb raiding gang, with a two-year pardon.

Yao Yuzhong was sentenced on Wednesday (29 November) after he was convicted of several offences, including tomb raiding, looting and selling stolen antiquities. The 55-year-old was the leader of a gang of 225 grave robbers who were arrested in 2015.

Yao's lawyer, Bi Baosheng, confirmed the sentencing to AFP, saying the "tomb raider" got death for "digging up ancient cultural sites and ancient graves" and "reselling cultural relics". However, he added that the court has also given him two years of reprieve, giving him time to appeal or have it reduced through good behaviour.

In the Wednesday's verdict, along with Yao, his 22 gang members also received prison terms of different lengths, while three got life sentences.

Local media reports stated that the gang's arrest was one of the biggest busts of its kind supervised by the Ministry of Public Security since 1949. With the arrest, authorities have also recovered a total of 2,063 artefacts, of which 16 were under grade-one State cultural protection.

Who is the Chinese 'tomb raider'?

There is nothing much known about the early life of the ringleader of the tomb raiding gang, except that he was from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, northern China.

Some local media reports claimed that although Yao lacked formal education, he was extremely well-read and picked up the tradition of raiding tombs from his father. It was reported that Yao's gang was behind the robbery of more than 2,000 ancient artefacts stolen from a historical site in the north-eastern Liaoning province.

According to a Chinese news website, The Paper, Yao started his tomb raiding career by combing graves dating back to the Neolithic Hongshan culture. It is said that such graves are narrow and rely more on the raider's ability to identify excavation sites than on his digging skills.

Yao have reportedly spent around 30 years of his life in raiding tombs, which eventually gained him the title of "master tomb raider" – the best in all of China's northeast.