Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

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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Blue Water Ventures International
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Gold Artifacts Discovered in 19th-Century Shipwreck That Was the ‘Titanic of Its Time’
Blue Water Ventures International
Blue Water Ventures International

On June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski was sailing off the coast of North Carolina, headed for Baltimore, when one of its boilers exploded, killing numerous passengers and causing colossal damage to the ship. It sank in less than an hour, taking two-thirds of its passengers with it. In January 2018, divers finally found the wreckage, and their latest expedition has brought back numerous new treasures, according to The Charlotte Observer, including a gold pocket watch that stopped just a few minutes after the boiler reportedly blew up.

The Pulaski disaster, which the Observer refers to as “the Titanic of its time,” was notable not just for its high death toll, but for whom it was carrying when it went down. The luxury steamship’s wealthy passengers included former New York Congressman William Rochester and prominent Savannah banker and businessman Gazaway Bugg Lamar, then one of the richest men in the region. At the time, the North Carolina Standard called the sinking “the most painful catastrophe that has ever occurred upon the American coast.”

An engraving showing the 'Pulaski' exploding
An 1848 illustration of the Pulaski explosion
Charles Ellms, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Divers from Blue Water Ventures International and Endurance Exploration Group (which owns the rights to the site) have located a number of artifacts that support the belief that the wreck they found is, in fact, what’s left of the Pulaski.

While they have yet to find the engraved ship’s bell (the main object used to authenticate a wreck), divers identified a few artifacts engraved with the name Pulaski, as well as numerous coins that were all produced prior to 1838. The 150 gold and silver coins discovered thus far are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today. They’ve also discovered silverware, keys, thimbles, and the ship's anchor.

A close-up of the gold pocket watch
Blue Water Ventures International

And in their most recent expedition, the divers found a unique gold watch that further supports the claim that this ship is the Pulaski. The hands of the engraved solid gold pocket watch on a gold chain—a piece only the wealthiest of men could afford—are stopped at 11:05, just five minutes after the boiler reportedly exploded.

The excavation of the remains of the ship will hopefully illuminate more of its story. Already, it has changed what we know about the ship’s final night: The wreck was discovered 40 miles off the North Carolina coast, a bit farther than the 30 miles estimated in initial newspaper reports of the disaster.

The investigators hope to eventually find evidence that will allow them to pinpoint why the deadly explosion occurred. While such explosions weren’t rare for steamships at the time, the crew may have pushed the ship beyond its limits in an attempt to reach its destination faster, causing the boiler to burst. Expeditions to the wreckage are ongoing.

[h/t The Charlotte Observer]

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Evening Standard, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
$2.5 Million in World War II-Era Cash Discovered Beneath Winston Churchill's Former Tailor's Shop
Evening Standard, Getty Images
Evening Standard, Getty Images

A valuable secret has been hiding beneath the floorboards of a sporting goods store in the UK since World War II. As the BBC reports, about £30,000 in roughly 80-year-old British bank notes was unearthed by a renovation project at the Cotswold Outdoor store in Brighton. Adjusting for inflation, their value would be equal to roughly $2.5 million today.

Owner Russ Davis came across the hidden treasure while tearing out decades-worth of carpet and tiles beneath the property. What he initially assumed was a block of wood turned out to be a wad of cash caked in dirt. Each bundle held about £1000 worth of £1 and £5 notes, with about 30 bundles in total.

The bills are badly damaged, but one surviving design element holds an important clue to their history. Each note is printed in blue, the color of the emergency wartime currency first issued by the Bank of England in 1940.

At the time the money was buried, the property was home to the famous British furrier and couturier Bradley Gowns. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Lady Clementine Churchill, were reportedly regular customers.

The reason the fortune was stowed beneath the building in the first place remains a mystery. Davis imagines that it might have come from a bank robbery, while Howard Bradley, heir to the Bradley Gowns family business, suspects it might have been stashed there as a getaway fund in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, as he told the New York Post.

The hoard will remain in the possession of the Sussex police as more details on the story emerge.

[h/t BBC]

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