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The search for Genghis Khan’s tomb


The Valley of the Khans (VOTK) research project was begun in 2009 to identify archaeological sites in Genghis Khan’s homeland – as well as the legendary leader’s own tomb – using a non-invasive scientific approach. The National Geographic backed project utilises modern digital tools from a variety of disciplines, including digital imagery, computer vision, non-destructive surveying, and on-site digital archaeology.

Mongolia. Image: mysim, Flickr

Mongolia. Photo: mysim, Flickr

The lost tomb

Genghis Khan asked to be buried without markings and after he died, his body was returned to Mongolia and presumably to his birthplace in the Khentii Aimag. Many people assume he is buried somewhere close to the Onon River. According to legend, the funeral escort killed anything that crossed their path in order to conceal where he was finally buried. After the tomb was completed, the slaves who built it were put to death, and then the soldiers who killed them were themselves killed.

Expanded expedition uses human computation component

The 2010 VOTK expedition used twice as many professionals as the 2009 inaugural season and was expanded to include a search area of 3,000 kilometres. This expansion was made possible by using satellite imaging and an innovative Human Computation toolkit.

BGAN, a mobile satellite communications service from Stratos Global, made it possible for the 2010 VOTK expedition to deploy the Human Computation toolkit. Before entering a new region, the team would use its BGAN connection to enable members of theĀ  public to serve as “virtual explorers” online to help search through and tag GeoEye-1 satellite imagery of the region in which the team was operating.

Virtual explorers

Screen capture of the crowd sourcing system to find sites in Mongolia

Screen capture of the crowd sourcing system to find sites in Mongolia

Each morning, the team would again use its BGAN connection to download annotations provided by virtual explorers – then use those annotations to direct its ground search.

This application enabled the team to significantly increase its search area and deploy a multi-stage approach to discovery, including: satellite imagery; aerial imagery; and geomagnetic surveys such as ground-penetrating radar and electro-magnetometers. “The expansion of our expedition would have been impossible without BGAN,” said Dr. Lin.

The research team now is analysing its field data and expects to announce its results by the end of this year. The VOTK search seeks to locate archaeological sites from the period of Genghis Khan without disturbing them, thus shedding light on Mongolia’s rich historical heritage and enabling conservation and education in this rapidly changing landscape. The search maintains respect for local customs while enabling protective measures through organizations such as UNESCO. The VOTK research project was one of National Geographic Adventure magazine’s 2010 Adventures of the Year.

More exploration

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