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 WWII Navy Submarine, Lost for 75 Years, Has Been Discovered Off the Coast of Japan

MR1805/iStock via Getty Images
MR1805/iStock via Getty Images

The U.S. Navy lost 52 submarines during World War II, many of which are still missing today. But as The New York Times reports, the wreck of the U.S.S. Grayback—a submarine that disappeared along with its 80-person crew in 1944—has been found off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.

On January 28, 1944, the Grayback departed from Pearl Harbor for its 10th combat patrol. It missed its scheduled return date that spring, and after weeks of failing to locate the vessel, the Navy declared it was likely lost.

Immediately following World War II, the U.S. military studied Japanese war records in search of clues that might lead them to their missing ships. One recording clearly states the Grayback was brought down by a bomb dropped by an Japanese aircraft, and it even gives the longitude and latitude of the attack. But due to a poor translation of the audio, the Navy went looking for the sub 100 miles away from its actual resting place.

Seventy-five years later, the submarine's coordinates were finally uncovered in old Imperial Japanese Navy files.

A Japanese researcher named Yutaka Iwasaki noticed this error while looking at the World War II records of the Imperial Japanese Navy base at Sasebo. He was asked to review the files for the Lost 52 Project, an organization dedicated to finding lost World War II submarines. Using the newly uncovered information and an autonomous underwater vehicle, the team was able to locate the vessel at the bottom of the East China Sea near Okinawa.

Lost 52 doesn't hunt for submarine wrecks with plans to recover them. Rather, the goal of the project is "documenting and preserving the story of the Lost 52 WWII Submarines, leaving a foundation of knowledge for future generations." In the case of the Grayback, the site where it settled on the seafloor will be protected from any human interference.

[h/t The New York Times]

Swedish Divers Just Discovered Two Shipwrecks That Might Be Related to the Famous Vasa Warship

The Vasa shipwreck displayed in Sweden's Vasa Museum.
The Vasa shipwreck displayed in Sweden's Vasa Museum.
Christian Lundh, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1625, King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden commissioned shipbuilders to create the most beautiful, lethal flagship that ever existed, as a symbol of Sweden’s naval strength. Three years later, crowds gathered to watch the Vasa, named after Sweden’s royal house, set sail for the first time. But less than a mile into its maiden voyage, the poorly and hastily constructed warship sunk to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, where it remained until 1961 when it was salvaged and later transported to the Vasa Museum.

Now, the Guardian reports Swedish maritime archaeologists from Vrak—Museum of Wrecks have located two shipwrecks in the Swedish archipelago outside of Vaxholm that could be linked to the Vasa. This is because the shipwright responsible for the Vasa built three other ships, the Äpplet, the Kronan, and the Scepter (though, unlike their ill-fated sibling, they actually made it into battle).

“It was like swimming around the Vasa ship,” maritime archaeologist Jim Hansson said in a museum press release. They believe the first wreck they discovered may be the Äpplet, and the second wreck could be either the Kronan or the Scepter.

“We think that some of them were sunk in the area,” Patrik Hoglund, another Vrak archaeologist, told the Guardian. But these ships didn’t capsize because of shoddy engineering or even an enemy attack. Instead, experts believe the Swedish navy intentionally sunk them after they were decommissioned, so their wrecks would function as surprise spike strips to damage approaching enemy ships.

The divers brought back wood samples from the wrecks to send to a laboratory for testing. Once they know when and where the timber came from, they can cross-reference the data with Swedish archives to find out if it matches information from the Vasa.

Even if the warships do turn out to be the Vasa’s long-lost siblings, it’s unlikely that they’ll be salvaged and displayed alongside it, since the Baltic Sea’s brackish waters actually preserve them much better than a museum could.

Sweden isn’t the only nation that boasts a beautiful shipwreck or two—here are 10 other shipwrecks around the world that you can visit.

[h/t The Guardian]

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