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Forbidden Friday: Seven Deadly Sins to Enjoy before Sunday

Today I'm in New York, my favorite city of sin (sorry, Vegas), so to honor my surroundings I thought I'd parcel out some goodies from our book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. First up, under the deadly sin of Pride, something Manhattanites know absolutely nothing about:

World Leaders Obsessed with Their Own Images

7mausoleum.gifMausolus: For 24 years, Mausolus ruled over the city-state of Halicarnassus in what is now Turkey, and he spent a lot of time building up the city. So, maybe it was only fitting that in his final years Mausolus built a monument to himself. Mausolus' self-styled memorial wasn't finished until a few years after his death "“ with his wife, Artemisia I, carrying on the work. But when it was done, it was one of the fanciest tombs the world has ever seen: 140 feet high, 12,000 square feet, and tastefully adorned with tons of giant statues. The tomb stood for 16 centuries before it was toppled by earthquakes. But Mausolus' wish to be remembered did come true. His name is at the root of the word for "grand tomb:" mausoleum.

Two more egomaniacs after the jump...

Nicolae Ceausescu: Starting in 1965, Ceausescu was dictator of Romania, and boy did everyone know it. Portraits of the man hung everywhere, along with billboards extolling him as the "Genius of the Carpathians." Further still, images of him and his wife (the deputy prime minister) adorned postage stamps, and scores of books they allegedly wrote were crammed on bookstore shelves. But Ceausescu's biggest monument to himself was "“ insert ironic chuckle here "“ "the People's Palace." The second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, in terms of area, the complex required the razing of a good part of downtown Bucharest in the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, the "people" weren't impressed. After a revolution and a one-day trial, the "people" took the First Couple out on Christmas Day, 1989, and shot them.

Saparmurat Niyazov: What can you say about a guy who becomes his country's first president and promptly begins calling himself the "Turkmenbashi," or "father of all Turkmen?" That he has a golden statue of himself in the capital city that rotates so the face is always toward the sun? That his image appears on all the currency? That a book he wrote is the foundation of the educational system? That he renamed one of the months of the year after his mother? Well, yes, if the guy in question is Niyazov, who has been president of Turkmenistan since the Central Asian country broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991. Oh, did we mention the palace of ice he wanted to build in the middle of a desert? We're not kidding.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
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.

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