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How a Mohammad Statue Ended up at the Supreme Court

The other day, Will and Jason told me about a Mohammad statue at the Supreme Court they heard about on This American Life. This was their way of saying, "We're curious, so you should go do a bunch of research on it. Let us know how that goes."

When I hear about depictions of Mohammad, I picture Muslims burning Aqua* CDs in the streets and boycotts of Danish"¦danishes.

But much to my surprise, the Danes aren't to blame this time around. The statue in question is, in fact, right in our very own Supreme Court building.

Let's start at the beginning.

A Court to Call Home

Despite its stature in the country's political and cultural landscape, the Supreme Court was something of a vagabond in its early years. When New York City was our capital, the Court met in the Merchants' Exchange Building, and when the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Court set up shop in Independence Hall, and then City Hall. When the federal government went off to Washington, the Court used the Capitol Building as a flophouse, but got bounced to a new chamber six different times during their stay.

Finally, in 1929, Chief Justice William Howard "I got stuck in the White House bathtub" Taft decided enough was enough and persuaded Congress to authorize the construction of a permanent home for the Court. Construction on the Supreme Court Building was completed in 1935, and the Court finally had a home to call its own after 146 years of existence.

supremecourt.jpg

Sculpture figures prominently in the Corinthian architecture of the Court Building. One chamber features a frieze decorated with a bas-relief sculpture by Adolph A. Weinman of eighteen influential law-givers. The south wall depicts Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian, while the north wall depicts Napoleon Bonaparte, John Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX, King John, Charlemagne, Justinian and, you guessed it, Mohammad.

Objections

Things were all well and good for a few decades, with no documented controversies over the sculpture that I could find. But then, in 1997, the fledgling Council on American-Islamic Relations brought their wrath to the Court, petitioning then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist to remove the sculpture. CAIR outlined their objections as thus:

1. Islam discourages its followers from portraying any prophet in artistic representations, lest the seed of idol worship be planted.

2. Depicting Mohammad carrying a sword "reinforced long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors."

3. Building documents and tourist pamphlets referred to Mohammad as "the founder of Islam," when he is, more accurately, the "last in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus."

Rehnquist dismissed CAIR's objections, saying that the depiction was "intended only to recognize him [Mohammad] ... as an important figure in the history of law; it was not intended as a form of idol worship." He also reminded CAIR that "words are used throughout the Court's architecture as a symbol of justice and nearly a dozen swords appear in the courtroom friezes alone."

Rehnquist did make one concession, though, and promised the description of the sculpture would be changed to identify Mohammad as a "Prophet of Islam," not "Founder of Islam." The rewording also said that the figure is a "well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Mohammed, and it bears no resemblance to Mohammed."

The reasoning behind Rehnquist's rejection? For one, he believed that getting rid of any one sculpture would impair the artistic integrity of the frieze, and two, it's illegal to injure, in any way, an architectural feature of the Supreme Court Building.

Other Depictions of the Prophet

While the Qur'an forbids idolatry, it doesn't expressly forbid depictions of the Prophet. The prohibition on such depictions that we often hear about comes from hadith (oral traditions that supplement the Qur'an). Muslim groups have differing opinions on the prohibition, with Shi'a Muslims generally taking a more relaxed view than Sunnis. That said, there are more depictions of Mohammad in art out there than we'd think, from the US to Uzbekistan. Until the 1950s, there was even a statue of the Prophet at the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, right on the front steps.

* Yes, they're the most famous Danes I could think of...

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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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