In Search of the Valley of the Khans

Mongolia is a land as historically abundant as it is geographically diverse. It is a country of snow-peaked mountains, windswept grassy steppes and baking deserts; yet underlying such harsh extremes are historical riches, many of them yet to be found. The wilderness of Mongolia represents a treasure trove of undiscovered archaeological sites that may hold the key to unlocking one of the world’s greatest ancient secrets: the mystery of the Valley of the Khans. If, that is, the growing trend in rogue mining does not obliterate those millennia-old records of our past – in what, in historical terms, would be the blink of an eye.

Mongolian shaman shrine
prayer flagsPhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

Homeland of Genghis Khan, Mongolia was the seat of the greatest military empire ever to have existed on earth. As the dust settled in the trail of ten thousand riders who galloped to overcome foes that outnumbered them a hundred to one, Mongolia’s warring clans were united under a single banner as never before. Now Field Expedition: Mongolia aims to get a step closer to discovering the Valley of the Khans – where the tombs of Genghis Khan and the 33 khans who followed him may be located – by placing satellite technology at the fingertips of thousands of internet users worldwide.

Satellite image showing mining camp to the right of possible site of archaeological interest on the left
satellite example 1Photo: Satellite imagery made available by GeoEye Foundation

Who hasn’t played the role of intrepid adventurer inside his or her head at some point in their lives? National Geographic is offering armchair explorers like you the opportunity to make that dream a reality – albeit a virtual one. For while those who embark on this hi-tech scientific expedition via the web may not get to wield a whip or don a fedora to block out the elements, but by analysing satellite imagery they will help pinpoint real sites of archaeological importance, and assist the team of Indiana Joneses on the ground, spearheaded by project leader Dr Albert Yu-Min Lin.

Dr Albert Yu-Min Lin writes up his diary whilst in the field
Albert DiaryPhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

Totally non-invasive tools such as ground penetrating radar and remote sensors are being used to identify archaeological sites and see up to 10m underground without disturbing a blade of grass or overturning a single stone. Archaeology for the 21st century, this approach is tied to a deep respect for the traditional beliefs of the indigenous people. The search for the final resting place of Genghis Khan is a quest that has eluded scientists and historians for decades. Yet Mongolians believe the tomb is an extremely sacred place and that any desecration of it – like digging – could trigger a curse that would end the world.

Dr Lin navigates a stream in Mongolia
Albert Jumps a RiverPhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

“The ability to explore in a non-invasive way lets us try to solve this ancient secret without overstepping cultural barriers,” says Dr Lin, the project’s Principal Investigator. “It also allows us to empower Mongolian researchers with tools they might not have access to otherwise. Today’s world still benefits from Genghis Khan’s ability to connect East with West. He forged international relations that have never been broken. By locating his tomb, we hope to emphasize how important it is for the world to protect such cultural heritage treasures.”

Team members in Mongolia
Landscape team walkingPhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

The technological tools being employed are one way in which this project is breaking ground without ever breaking the surface of the ground. The other area of innovation comes through idea of crowd-sourcing. By providing real-time data, multispectral satellite imagery via the GeoEye Foundation, this archaeological survey of Mongolia allows web users around the world to actively participate in the ongoing scientific exploration of Mongolia’s sacred lands in search of sites of significance. The result is a field staff of online explorers that already numbers well over 5,000 individuals.

Satellite image of Mongolia showing a bridge
Satellite image example 3Photo: Satellite imagery made available by GeoEye Foundation

By harnessing the power of the collecting gaze, the way is opened to identifying roads, rivers and other man-made on-the-ground anomalies – anomalies that could indicate significant sites of cultural heritage – in an area of Mongolia unexplored for almost 800 years. Once such locations are pinpointed, they are ground-checked by the expedition team working in the field at the same time. The public’s participation will help researchers and more importantly conserve and protect Mongolia’s cultural heritage – and the more images that are tagged and analysed, the better (so get searching, kids!).

Albert Lin stands in front of the UCSD HYPERspace wall
Albert LinPhoto: Erik Jepsen

Environmental Graffiti had the opportunity to talk to project leader Dr Lin, who was inspired to start the project by his own part-Mongolian cultural heritage, and repeated solo expeditions to this remote corner of the Earth. Lin recalls:

“The first time I went to Mongolia was amazing. I didn’t have anything but GPS and a small sleeping bag and I was intending on buying a horse and travelling around on horseback until I had to come home. But luckily for me the nomads told me quickly that I was going to die if I even tried that, and they ended taking me out to the nomadic lands as friends and letting me ride with them for months at a time. And throughout that entire process I learned not only everything I had never known about this individual named Genghis Khan but I also learned about the beauty of Mongolia and its amazing landscape and its amazing culture.”

Travel on horseback is essential for journeys in Mongolia that cannot be made via modern transportation modes
Landscape HorsebackPhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

Despite the special quality of this initial acquaintance with the land of his forefathers, Lin saw dramatic change occur over a short period of time as the land became more and more pockmarked due to the impact being made by the discovery of mining resources. “I went back a year later and then a year later after that and a year later after that, and every time I went back the landscape was being destroyed by mining. Within 5 years the landscape was totally different.” And that got Lin wondering.

“I decided to think about how maybe through knowledge I’d be able to protect this land, and that worked perfectly with trying to identify sites of extreme importance. But then to do that but try not to break the age-old traditions of not disturbing the tomb of Genghis Khan was kind of difficult, so then I tried to use develop non-invasive tools or an idea of how we could do this non-invasively.”

Multispectral imagery collected by the GeoEye-1 and Ikonos Earth-sensing satellites allows the team to survey the expansive Mongolian landscape for sites of interest
satellitesPhoto: Illustration courtesy GeoEye, Inc

From here the project idea germinated into something more. With some serendipity, the Geo Eye Foundation, “which is able to provide the highest resolution satellite imagery in the world,” called up Lin one day to offer their help (after Lin, for months, had been working out how he would try to ask for it)! At the same time, one of Lin’s UC San Diego professors connected him with National Geographic, and the next thing he knew he was firing emails off to Mission Program Vice President Terry Garcia that told of his solo travels to Mongolia “in the midst of winter to try to meet with the politicians and scholars” and so develop the project. Before he knew it, Lin had funding support from the Waitt Foundation and the help of the International Association for Mongol Studies, and the budding team was able to put together “an amazing first expedition with a big group to Mongolia.”

Lightning strikes across the plains as a storm approaches base camp
yurt night time lightningPhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

The technology the team has at their disposal is, Lin acknowledges, “pretty remarkable” (he gets to say that a lot!). As well as some of world’s leading geophysicists on the ground, they also have some of the best tools available for “incredible work without even touching the ground.” Words like “electro-magnetometers” make the mind boggle, but back in the lab at UC San Diego’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, there’s more: “The best in 3D visualization, immersive visualization, together with experts in non-invasive imaging. You’ve just got the gamut of whatever it takes to do this kind of work,” Lin enthuses. “And that was something that you can’t really ever get access to as an individual researcher.”

Various members of the project examine 3D images of Mongolia in the immersive StarCAVE at the University of California, San Diego
star cavePhoto: by Erik Jepsen

The project’s other area of innovation came through the concept of crowd sourcing. Inspired by this new frontier in fields such as astrophysics, Lin and others sat down to figure how they could cope with analysing the many satellite images they had, each one huge in scale.

The question became: “How do we engage many, many people to try to apply their human intuition to try to tell us what looks different? It’s really a strange concept. We’re just asking for people to identify what looks like an anomaly – an anomaly from a sea of trees and fields and other things that are modern… We’re asking for an anomaly: something that looks old, something that looks ancient, something that looks just out of place. You know it might be in the sub-surface, some feature in the ground that doesn’t look right like a rectangle or some kind of form. And we’re asking them to do it in mass numbers, because the more people that play this game the more accurate it gets.”

Albert Lin and team members stand in front of the UCSD HYPERspace wall
Albert Lin, HYPERspace wallPhoto: Erik Jepsen

As a result of people interacting with the program and verifying one another (because of not knowing what other people have tagged) now, says Lin: “We’ve got the HYPERspace wall, this huge visualization tool, and then on top of that, pockmarked, hundreds of thousands of users’ inputs about what that imagery makes up – and it makes this incredible map, and we can go out and physically go out and check out those sites and tell people what they saw.”

Satellite image of Mongolia showing a possible site of archaeological interest
Satellite image example 2Photo: Satellite imagery made available by GeoEye Foundation

Has the project already thrown up some outstanding successes? Lin revealed: “Just the other day I think the team was finding these Bronze Age burial mounds, these 3000-year-old burial mounds in the valley that you know for a large part is going to be in threat of being mined. But hopefully with the gaining of this knowledge we can create some kind of international conservation efforts that highlight the importance of Mongolia’s cultural heritage, and maybe show that there is different economy that can be developed outside of mining.”

At this point we realized both how complex and sensitive were the project and issues at play. “I understand that mining does have to happen, and countries have to have the ability to pull upon their own resources as they choose,” says Lin. “But maybe there are also sub-economies that can be created around cultural heritage, maybe you can create sub-parks that allow us to preserve certain aspects of the landscape. And for example the discovery of multiple Bronze Age tombs from 3000 years ago, just from satellite imagery, from people helping us, figuring out where we should go, is a pretty remarkable statement not only to the science of this new idea of crowd sourcing but also to just the vast wealth of cultural heritage that exists in Mongolia.”

The team gets one of their trucks out of the Mongolian mud
truck maintenancePhoto: courtesy Mike Hennig

Conservation is the “backbone of why we do research,” Lin is keen to stress. “Why we try to understand more about ourselves, is so that we learn not to destroy the only link to our past – so that for generations to come people can also learn from our past: where we come from, who we are, what our origins are, how society developed, how we became what we are today.”

“And you know people don’t realize this but a lot of those answers also lie in Mongolia – because Genghis Khan took over the entire world, or more of it than any other individual in living history. He conquered lands that swept from Asia all the way to Europe – and in one lifetime – forever changing the scope of what we know of as international boundaries, trade rules, warfare, cultures, religion, technology, everything. And people don’t realise it, they don’t even talk about him like that, but the truth is that he was an incredible – maybe the most incredible – individual of our modern era because of the fact that he had such sweeping influence across the entire world.”

Portrait of Genghis Khan
Genghis KhanPhoto: National Palace Museum, Taiwan

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty warrior, Genghis Khan was also a remarkable human being. And it’s the human element of the project that shines through after talking to Dr Lin, notwithstanding the prominent role of technology has to play. For Dr Lin – now a National Geographic Emerging Explorer – it comes back to lessons he learned from UC San Diego lecturer Maurizio Seracini, who was a big influence on him: “He said that if we’re only worried about progress – getting better materials, being faster, being more efficient, having more resources – but we forget about what we’re doing it for, what makes us human, then we’re really making ourselves obsolete.”