Help Find Genghis Khan’s Tomb From the Comfort of Your Home

Internet Places

Photograph by Erik Jepsen. Albert Lin stands in front of the UCSD HYPERspace wall.

From time to time, people in charge of large internet-based projects request the help of the general public to assist in their work. Think SETI@home and Galaxy Zoo. Currently, there is another project with which you can help, supported by National Geographic Digital Media. It is called “Field Expedition: Mongolia — Valley of the Khans Project.” This project is a huge archaeological survey of parts of Mongolia, looking for the tomb of Genghis Khan and other Mongolian cultural heritage sites. Wired’s own Gadget Lab wrote about this project last year.

Satellite imagery made available by GeoEye Foundation. Satellite image of Mongolia showing a possible site of archaeological interest.

Genghis Khan‘s tomb has never been found because of some fascinating historical factors which you can read about on the project’s website. By combining the use of high tech tools and crowdsourcing, their small team of explorers, led by Albert Lin, turns into a team of thousands working together to identify possible tomb locations. This is done by having the general public studying satellite images and identifying the features we see. There’s no way the small team would have enough time to search the entire area themselves, so our help is invaluable. It’s amazing how helpful we can be without being experts on satellite imagery. It’s very easy to spot rivers and roads, and pretty intuitive to spot modern structures, such as yurts, and signs of ancient or buried structures, such as burial mounds or odd land patterns. Then, combining this information with real-time data and maps, the expedition gets a clearer picture of the different areas of Mongolia.

One reason why the explorer team is using satellite imagery techniques is to minimize the amount of digging that is done, which preserves Mongolia’s land and protects the cultural history. By studying the land from above, one can see subtle differences in terrain, perhaps areas that have settled in unusual ways. As possible heritage sites are located, people on the ground can investigate further. Explorer Albert Lin and his team will be investigating the tagged items, without digging any holes. Top Mongolian scholars are also participating in the process.

Perhaps this noninvasive way of performing archaeology is the new way of things. The use of technology such as satellite imagery, other tools and the help of the general internet public could be applied to similar projects in the future. Some of the other new technologies used in this project include unmanned aerial vehicles, three dimensional virtual reality and ground penetrating radar.

Photograph courtesy Mike Hennig. Team members in Mongolia.

To join in on this adventure-from-home, visit the website for Field Expedition: Mongolia — Valley of the Khans Project. There are still more than two weeks left in this important historical expedition, so label a few satellite photos in your spare time. You can do a test marking on the site, but if you want your marks to count, you need to register and be logged in. Registration is easy, though: they just ask for a user name, email address and password. As you begin marking images, you’re in a training phase. I think they want to make sure your marking the images correctly, so the first several serve as a tutorial. As you mark more images in the training, you are told what you did right and what you missed. You’re only looking for roads, rivers, modern structures and ancient structures, and anything else that is interesting but you can’t identify can be marked as “other.”

Once you’re done with training, you reach the Novice 1 rank. The site then shares with you what other people have identified in the photos. It will also tell you if you’re the first to view an image. The more images you mark, the higher your rank. I’m guessing that if enough people think that a site has some significance and is worth checking out, especially if many people of high rank identified the same spot, it will be a good spot for the explorers to check out on the ground. Not every image has something to mark, however, and sometimes it can take a while for an image to display. So it is a great activity to do while doing something else.

Whether you participate in this project as a fun exercise, use it to teach your kids about satellite photos and what the Earth looks like from above or to assist the explorer team in their hunt for the tomb of Genghis Khan, it’s a fascinating way to spend some time over the next couple of weeks. The team will be in the field for most of July, so mark those images soon! Be careful, though: this activity is highly addictive. You may find that you end up spending much more time on this project than you had planned. Give it a try!

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