New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Remains of Late 19th-Century Shipwreck Found on Jersey Shore

iStock.com/Sierra Gaglione
iStock.com/Sierra Gaglione

The holiday season isn't usually associated with the beach, but nature has a funny way of delivering surprises no matter the time of year. The weekend before Christmas, the remains of an old ship stretching over 25 feet long were discovered at the southern area of Stone Harbor beach, according to nj.com.

Local historians believe the vessel is the D.H. Ingraham, a schooner that sank in 1886 during a voyage from Rockland, Maine, to Richmond, Virginia. Archives from the time recount that while the ship was delivering a cargo of lime, it caught fire. Thanks to station employees at the nearby Hereford Lighthouse, all five men aboard were rescued and given proper shelter for the next four days. The rescuers even received medals of honor from Congress, which are still on display inside the lighthouse, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

This is not the only shipwreck to have been discovered along the Jersey Shore; in 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found one while making repairs to the Barnegat Inlet jetty. (New Jersey has its own Historical Divers Association, and at one point its president, Dan Lieb, estimated that the state had up to 7000 shipwrecks off its coasts.)

To check out more coverage about shipwrecks, like this 48-foot find in Florida earlier this year, click here.

[h/t nj.com]

People Have Been Dining on Caviar Since the Stone Age

iStock.com/Lisovskaya
iStock.com/Lisovskaya

Millennia before caviar became a staple hors d'oeuvre at posh parties, it was eaten from clay pots by Stone Age humans. That's the takeaway of a new study published in the journal PLOS One. As Smithsonian reports, traces of cooked fish roe recovered from an archeological site in Germany show just how far back the history of the dish goes.

For the study, researchers from Germany conducted a protein analysis of charred food remains caked to the shards of an Stone Age clay cooking vessel. After isolating roughly 300 proteins and comparing them to that of boiled fresh fish roe and tissue, they were able to the identify the food scraps as carp roe, or eggs. The scientists write that the 4000 BCE-era hunter-gatherers likely cooked the fish roe in a pot of water or fish broth heated by embers, and covered the pot with leaves to contain the heat or add additional flavor.

The clay shards were recovered from Friesack 4 in Brandenburg, Germany, a Stone Age archaeological site that has revealed about 150,000 artifacts, including items crafted from antlers, wood, and bone, since it was discovered in the 1930s. In the same study, the researchers report that they also found remnants of bone-in pork on a vessel recovered from the same site.

Other archaeological digs have shown that some of the foods we think of as modern delicacies have been around for thousands of years, including cheese, salad dressing, and bone broth. The same goes for beverages: Recently a 13,000-year-old brewery was uncovered in the Middle East.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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