"There are no first-hand accounts" of his burial, Lin said. "The oldest was written about 50 years after his death. A lot of historians have pointed toward an area in northern Mongolia, where Genghis Khan was born and where he found most of his spiritual guidance. He probably wanted to be buried there, but nobody really knows."
Lin has already begun his search with satellite photos donated by GeoEye, Corp., that could hold clues to "anomalies" on the surface that could indicate an ancient disturbance of the soil. Lin is an affiliate research scientist in UC San Diego's Center for Interdisciplinary Science in Art, Architecture and Archaeology.
The satellite images are the first phase of the three-year project. If he finds some promising sites, and if he gets approval from local authorities, he will lead a team of researchers for on-site, non-intrusive investigations. They will use several new techniques, including magnetometry, which can pinpoint subsurface disturbances, like ditches and plowing, by detecting variations in soil magnetism against the general background of the Earth's magnetic field.
Archaeologists have used that technology to locate other sites, but it does have limitations. It is effective if the area has been burned at some time in the past, because burning changes the magnetic properties of the surrounding soil by altering the magnetism of tiny iron particles. But a grave is less likely to show up because the hole usually is immediately refilled with the same dirt.
Presumably, however, the grave for Genghis Khan would be a bit grander than just a hole in the ground.
Ground penetrating radar could also be used to create reasonably clear images of the first few feet of soil, but it, too, has its limitations. It does not work as well in moist soils, because water attenuates the signal. However, the burial site is probably in a high desert location with typically dry soils.
All of these techniques could be overlapped to create three-dimensional images of the ground beneath promising sites, Lin said. And what happens if he pinpoints the location of the tomb?
Lin said he has no intention to excavate. That is a decision that only the Mongolians should make, he added.
And even if he and his colleagues are able to pull all this off, Lin may end up empty-handed, like so many other researchers before him.
One account of Khan's burial, which may or may not be true, says that after he was entombed, his followers diverted a river to flow over the grave so no one would ever disturb it. If that's right, there may not be a lot left to find.