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.

A Pair of Dutch World War II Shipwrecks Have Disappeared Off the Coast of Malaysia

jfybel/iStock via Getty Images
jfybel/iStock via Getty Images

For nearly 80 years, two Dutch submarines have been occupying the ocean floor off the coast of Malaysia, with the remains of their crews still inside. They were among dozens of shipwrecks in the same area, all of them casualties of underwater World War II battles. Now, the ships— known as HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K VII—are gone.

There’s nothing paranormal at work, though. Instead, the ships have vanished as a result of greed. Scavengers in the area have made a profitable pursuit of placing explosives within the wrecks, blowing them into manageable pieces and taking off with the scrap metal using a crane. Copper and bronze materials can also be resold. It’s estimated that about 40 ships in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have been demolished as a result of such efforts in recent years.

Because the ships are typically considered unmarked graves, the thieves may be committing the crime of desecrating corpses. After several British ships were found ransacked, the UK’s Ministry of Defense urged Indonesia to increase their efforts to protect the ships. The United States has dispatched representatives in Indonesia to guard ships they believe have been targeted by the scavengers.

Marine archaeologists have expressed some puzzlement at the phenomenon, as the scrap can often take weeks to retrieve, is frequently corroded, and would seemingly be cost-prohibitive to steal considering the labor involved. It’s possible that the ships may be targeted for having low-background metals, which are free from radiation because they pre-date atomic bomb testing and can be used in delicate scientific instruments like Geiger counters. In China, scrap metal could bring in about $1.3 million per ship. 

[h/t Live Science]

10 Shipwrecks You Can Visit

Suphaporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Suphaporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus

UNESCO says that there are no fewer than 3 million shipwrecks lost beneath the waves, with many of their locations just waiting to be discovered. But for tourism purposes, the most interesting shipwrecks are those we already know about—and can visit. These 10 shipwrecks have intriguing stories, and they’re all places where you can step foot, although in some cases a boat (and possibly scuba gear) may be necessary. Remember: Look, don’t touch, since removing artifacts can spoil the chance for valuable archeological research (and is often illegal).

1. Bessie White, Fire Island, New York

Fire Island shipwreck on white sand
A Fire Island shipwreck thought to be the Bessie White
Nick Normal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 200-foot schooner Bessie White wrecked off the shore of this barrier island while laden with coal in 1919 or 1922 (historians aren't sure of the exact date). The crew escaped, but the 3-year-old ship ran aground. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy revealed the battered remnants of what's believed to be the ship's hull, which had been carried to a spot near Skunk Hollow in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness. The National Park Service sometimes leads hikes to the wreckage, whose location over time provides scientists with clues to how the landscape of Fire Island has changed.

2. MS World Discoverer, Solomon Islands

World Discoverer wreck off Guadalcanal
World Discoverer wreck off Guadalcanal
Philjones828, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

A cruise ship built in 1974 that once carried passengers to polar regions, MS World Discoverer ran aground in the Solomon Islands in 2000. No lives were lost—all the passengers escaped via ferry after an uncharted rock pierced the ship's hull. Today the wreckage is still a tourist attraction in Roderick Bay in the Nggela Islands, listing heavily against the shore.

3. Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon

The wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, USA, at sunset
The wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, USA, at sunset
ROBERT BRADSHAW, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // CC BY 2.5

Now a haunting ruin along the Oregon coast, the Peter Iredale was once a four-masted steel barque sailing vessel owned by British shipping firm Iredale & Porter. In September 1906, the ship left Santa Cruz, Mexico, on its way to Portland, Oregon, where it was supposed to pick up wheat bound for the United Kingdom. But a heavy wind and strong current sent her on to the breakers and she ran aground at Clatsop Beach, with three of her masts snapping from the impact, according to the Oregon History Project. The wreckage became an immediate tourist attraction, and despite being buffeted by the wind and waves ever since, it remains so today. It’s now part of Fort Stevens State Park.

4. MV Panagiotis, Zakynthos Island, Greece

The rusty wreck of the Panagiotis on Zakynthos Island
The rusty wreck of the Panagiotis on Zakynthos Island
Simon Dux/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This shipwreck in the Ionian Islands gives its beach its nicknames: Navagio ("shipwreck") Beach and Smugglers Cove. Supposedly, the Panagiotis, which wrecked there in the early 1980s, was smuggling cigarettes and alcohol. The rusting hulk of the boat is far from the only thing to see, however; the beach also attracts visitors for its clear turquoise waters and pristine pale sand. It’s also one of the most popular spots for BASE jumping in the world. The cove can be accessed only by boat. Be careful taking selfies from the cliff, however: At least one tourist fell to their death that way.

5. SS Maheno, Fraser Island, Australia

Fraser Island S.S Maheno Shipwreck
The S.S Maheno Shipwreck on Fraser Island

Once an ocean liner that plied the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia, the SS Maheno was also used as a hospital ship for the New Zealand navy during World War I. She was later sold to a Japanese ship-breaking company for scrap, but broke apart in a cyclone on the journey to Japan in 1935. Since washing ashore on Australia's Fraser Island, the ship has become a major tourist attraction, despite not being particularly safe.

6. SS Oregon, Long Island Sound, New York

Once the fastest liner on the Atlantic, the SS Oregon sunk in 1886 just 18 miles off New York after hitting an unidentified schooner, often thought to be the Charles R. Morse. After an unsuccessful attempt to plug the hole in the hull with canvas, the captain ordered the ship abandoned, even though there were only enough lifeboats for half the ship's 852 passengers. (Fortunately, another ship arrived to save the passengers, and there were no casualties.) Today the wreck is a popular dive site in Long Island Sound. Although the ship's hull and decks have disintegrated over the years, the engine and boilers remain, among other remnants.

7. Uluburun, Bodrum, Turkey

Granted, it's in a museum, but the Uluburun wreck, which sank off the coast of Turkey during the late Bronze Age, is one of the oldest ships ever found—it dates back 3,500 years. A local sponge diver found the wreck of the Uluburun off the southwestern coast of Turkey in the early 1980s. Archeologists then spent 11 years studying the ship, collecting 20 tons of artifacts, including the remains of fruits and nuts, pottery, jewelry, tools, and weapons. No one knows who built the ship or where it was headed, but judging by the amount of gold onboard, someone rich was involved. The remains of the ship and its cargo, as well as a life-sized replica, are kept at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology.

8. MV Captayannis, River Clyde, Scotland

Once a Greek sugar-carrying ship, the MV Captayannis has become a de facto home for birds and other wildlife since sinking in Scotland's River Clyde in 1974 during a terrible storm. (The minor collision with a BP oil tanker also didn't help.) The shallow waters around the wreck make it relatively accessible, and the ship seems likely to stay where it is, since its precise ownership is something of a mystery.

9. La Famille Express, Turks And Caicos Islands

The La Famille Express shipwreck anchored in the Turks and Caicos Islands
The La Famille Express shipwreck anchored in the Turks and Caicos Islands
Matthew Straubmuller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Built in 1952 in Poland, La Famille Express served a large part of its life in the Soviet Navy (where it was known as Fort Shevchenko), before being sold and re-christened with its new name in 1999. It wrecked under mysterious circumstances around 2004. It now lies in just a few feet of water, an attractive landmark for boaters in the Turks and Caicos.

10. Eduard Bohlen, Namibia

Wreck of the ship Eduard Bohlen that ran aground off Namibia's Skeleton Coast
Wreck of the ship Eduard Bohlen that ran aground off Namibia's Skeleton Coast
Anagoria, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

This wreck is unusual for being buried entirely in the sand—it's now stranded about a quarter mile away from shore. A 2272-ton cargo ship that wrecked off Namibia's Skeleton Coast in 1909 in thick fog, the ship has since drifted so far from the water it's now completely land-locked.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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