When Genghis Khan died, he didn’t want to be found. So soldiers in his burial party butchered anyone they saw on their way to his burial tomb. Then they killed the people who built the monument. Then, finally, they killed themselves. Who knows whether the perhaps apocryphal tale is true, but even today, nearly 800 years following the death of the greatest conqueror the world has ever known, the location of his tomb remains unknown.
Many people have tried to find it, from archaeologists who uncovered Genghis Khan’s palace to some attorney in Chicago who led an expedition to 60 unopened tombs in the Mongol warlord’s realm. The quest is for both history — and for riches. According to Mongolia Today, incredible treasures were buried with Genghis Khan from every corner of his vast empire and, as one researcher told the Associated Press, “if we find what items were buried with him, we could write a new page for world history.”
That page may be written sooner than many imagine. That’s thanks to a novel new way to search for the tomb that scours vast tracts of underpopulated and undulating Mongol terrain — from space. Yes, space.
“Ultra-high resolution satellite imaging enables a new paradigm in global exploration,” said study published last week in the journal PLOS One. But the breadth of the search was so daunting and vast that researchers with the University of California at San Diego, led by Albert Yu-Min Lin, have outsourced the search to the general public.
“This is a needle in a haystack problem where the appearance of the needle is unknown,” wrote Lin, who has been described as a “modern-day Indiana Jones” and has been photographed dramatically riding horses across the Mongol expanse. So “we charged an online crowd of volunteer participants with the challenge of finding the tomb of Ghengis Khan, an archaeological enigma of unknown characteristics widely believed to be hidden somewhere within the range of our satellite imagery.”
One of the problems, however, is that there was so much land to study. The sweep of Genghis Khan’s empire, which began when he united Mongolia’s warring tribes in the early 13th century, is dizzying to contemplate. It first subsumed all of what is modern-day Mongolia before spilling across Asia on the might of the Mongol invasions, conquering terrain from China to the gates of Western Europe by the turn of the century. Many now suspect Khan’s final resting place is much closer to the roots of his power — in Mongolia itself, near the site of his palace, which sat around 150 miles east of the nation’s modern capital.
So in a partnership with National Geographic, Lin’s team constructed a landscape of more than 84,000 tiles that spanned more than 6,000 square kilometers and launched what they called a “virtual exploration system” in 2010. The task for participants: Tag anything that looks like it could be an “archaeological enigma that lacks any historical description of its potential visual appearance.”
It was essential to get help, the paper said: “A single archaeologist would have to scroll through nearly 20,000 screens before covering the whole area.” Still, no one expected they would get so much of it.
More than 10,000 people gave it a go, tagging anything they thought looked like a location where a great Mongol warlord would want to rest in peace. In all, they clocked more than three years worth of work — 30,000 hours — and generated more than 2 million tags. From that number, the researchers have culled 100 locations for further inquiry and identified 55 “potential archaeological anomalies” that ranged from the Bronze Age to the Mongol period.
So far, no Khan yet. But the search is complicated by a number of factors unique to the quest for Khan’s tomb. As explained by Motherboard’s Ben Richmond, the Mongols absolutely hate archaeologists trampling on their turf disturbing the nation’s most holy sites. In fact, the spot where a lot of people thought Khan was buried is actually one of the country’s most sacred spots. It’s called Ikh Khorig, which translates literally to the “great taboo,” but is often called the “forbidden zone” by outsiders.
Lin, who reports described as “obsessed” with Genghis Khan and finding his tomb, also searched the forbidden zone, but found zilch. “The team pushed its way through the thick, boar-infested brush surrounding it and clambered to the top,” as National Geographic described one of the expedition’s analyses. “A test probe, however, revealed that the hill was just a hill.”
But now, thanks to his crowdsourcing study, he has a whole new slew of potential sites to explore and try and discover the tomb. Still, how to side-step Mongolia’s reservations about expeditions? “Mongolians detest any attempt to touch graves, or even wander around graveyards,” Mongolia Today said. “According to ancient tradition, burial spots are forbidden areas in which no one is allowed.”
So he hopes to find it from space — and now he says he can.