High-Tech Search for Legendary Warlord

Using high tech, a scientist searches for the tomb of Genghis Khan.

Oct. 29, 2008— -- Somewhere beneath the wind-swept deserts of Mongolia lies the body of one of the most enigmatic warlords in history, a ruthless but brilliant leader who united his people and built the largest empire in the world. Nearly 800 years after Genghis Khan died, the legends continue to grow, as do the mysteries.

Now, a young scientist at the University of California, San Diego, is hoping to succeed, where others have failed, and answer a question that has puzzled historians for centuries: Where, precisely, is the tomb of Genghis Khan?

Albert Yu-Min Lin doesn't plan to search for his answer with the traditional tools of archaeology, a small pick and good brush. Instead, he will rely on high-tech, and if he is successful, he will find the long-sought tomb without turning a single space of dirt.

"We're trying to locate the tomb, not dig it up," said Lin, who lived for awhile in Mongolia with a family of horsemen.

Lin's tools will be "non invasive" implements, ranging from satellite photos, ground-penetrating radar, and sensitive devices that can detect clues that the ground was disturbed hundreds of years ago.

It's an ambitious goal, and the embryonic "valley of the Khans project" is a long way from fruition. Lin must first obtain permission from the government of Mongolia to study a region that has been off limits to foreigners for many years, and he needs to build a strong relationship with potential collaborators in Mongolia, and, oh yes, he needs to secure funding to the tune of about $700,000. So, this is not a done deal, but Lin has the backing of several major research institutions.

And his timing could be perfect. There is a resurgence of interest in Genghis Khan, the subject of an Oscar-nominated film, "Mongol." Lin hopes to use this project to focus western attention on the enormous contributions of Asia to global culture, and where better to begin than with a ruthless warlord who built a 13th century empire that stretched from Asia to Europe and as far south as India and the Himalayas. It was the largest contiguous empire in history. All that's left of that today is the independent country of Mongolia, about the size of Alaska and sandwiched between Siberia and China. And it wouldn't be there if there had never been a Genghis Khan, according to some historians.

"What we know about the modern world today was shaped by what we know of the European conquerors," Lin said. "The history of Asia and it's impact on the world is rarely discussed, at least from a western point of view."

Khan, who died in 1227 from injuries suffered when he fell off his horse, was buried with such secrecy that anyone who happened to run into the funeral procession was immediately executed, according to accounts that may be as mythical as the man himself. What is known, however, is that he was a brilliant military tactician who united warring factions to create his empire, but probably not the kind of chap you would like to have over for dinner.

Modern Mongolia is still a land largely of nomads who roam across its mostly-desert lands, and much of it has changed since the days of Genghis Khan. How does one even begin to search for his tomb?

"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.