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.

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.

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.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

Face masks are going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and with that in mind, designers and manufacturers have answered the call by providing options that are tailored for different lifestyles and fashion tastes. Almost every mask below is on sale, so you can find one that fits your needs without overspending.

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Home Essentials

This set of five polyester masks offers the protection you need in a range of colors, so you can coordinate with whatever outfit you're wearing.

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Brio

The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

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Triple Grade

This cotton mask pack is washable and comfortable. Use the two as a matching set with your best friend or significant other, or keep the spare for laundry day.

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RipleyRader

Don’t let masks get in the way of staying active. These double-layer cotton masks are breathable but still protect against those airborne particles.

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Its All Good

Avoid the accidental nose-out look with this cotton mask that stays snug to your face.

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Elicto

With this 12-pack of protective masks, you can keep a few back-ups in your car and hand the rest out to friends and family who need them.

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7. Reusable Dust-Proof Mask with 5 Filters; $22 (45 percent off)

Triple Grade

This dust-proof mask can filter out 95 percent of germs and other particles, making it a great option for anyone working around smoke and debris all day, or even if you're just outside mowing the lawn.

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8. Reusable Fun Face Cover / Neck Gaiter (Flamingo); $20

Designer Face Covers

Channel some tropical energy with this flamingo fabric neck gaiter. The style of this covering resembles a bandana, which could save your ears and head from soreness from elastic loops. Other designs include a Bauhaus-inspired mask and this retro look.

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9. Seamless Bandana Mask; $8 (52 percent off)

Eargasm Earplugs

This seamless gaiter-style mask can be worn properly for protection and fashioned up into a headband once you're in the car or a safe space. Plus, having your hair out of your face will help you avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth before washing your hands.

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Design Safe

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Its All Good

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Humans First Arrived in North America 30,000 Years Ago, New Studies Suggest

Researcher samples cave sediments for DNA.
Researcher samples cave sediments for DNA.
Devlin A. Gandy

People occupied North America by roughly 11,000 BCE, but the exact timeline of how early humans first arrived on the continent is contested. Two new studies suggest that humans were living in North America as far back as 30,000 years ago—preceding some earlier estimates by more than 15,000 years.

According to the traditional narrative, the first North Americans were big game hunters who crossed a land bridge connecting Asia to North America around 13,000 years ago. They left behind distinct, fluted arrowheads and bone and ivory tools that were dubbed “Clovis” tools. “This narrative, known as ‘Clovis-first,’ was widely accepted for most of the 20th century until new archaeological evidence showed that humans were present in the continent before Clovis,” Lorena Becerra-Valdivia, an archaeological scientist with the Universities of Oxford and New South Wales and co-author of the new studies, tells Mental Floss. “Within academia, an earlier arrival of 16,000-15,000 years ago was generally accepted.”

Her new analysis pushes back that date by several millennia. The study, “The Timing and Effect of the Earliest Human Arrivals in North America,” published in the journal Nature, looks at radiocarbon and luminescence data from Beringia, a region that historically linked Russia and Alaska, and North America. A statistical model built with this data indicates that a significant human population was living on the continent long before the Clovis era. According to the study, these humans were likely present before, during, and after the Last Glacial Maximum—the period when ice sheets covered much of North America 26,000 to 19,000 years ago.

Stone tool found below the Last Glacial Maximum layer.Ciprian Ardelean

These findings also contradict the land bridge theory. Rather than making a straightforward journey from Asia to North America and populating the southern half of the continent as the Clovis people were thought to have done, the first humans may have entered the Americas by traveling down the Pacific Coast. “These are paradigm-shifting results that shape our understanding of the initial dispersal of modern humans into Americas,” Becerra-Valdivia says. “They suggest exciting and interesting possibilities for what likely was a complex and dynamic process.”

The second, related study in Nature, ”Evidence of Human Occupation in Mexico Around the Last Glacial Maximum,” supports this new narrative. In it, researchers from institutes in Mexico, the UK, and other countries share artifacts and environmental DNA uncovered from Chiquihuite Cave—a high-altitude cave in Zacatecas, central Mexico. The tools, plant remains, and environmental DNA collected there paint of picture of human life dating back 13,000 to 30,000 years ago. The evidence shows that the site was more than just a stopping point, and the people living there had adapted to the high altitudes and harsh mountain landscape.

The two studies not only offer insight on when the first North Americans arrived on the continent, but who they were and how they lived. The Americas would have looked a lot different to humans during the Last Glacial Maximum than they did to the Clovis people millennia later. The fact that the first North Americans left behind far fewer artifacts than the Clovis people shows that their populations stayed relatively small. “Humans at Chiquihuite Cave would have faced the harshness of the Last Glacial Maximum, the peak of the last Ice Age, which would have kept their population at a low density,” Becerra-Valdivia says. “Clovis peoples, in contrast, thrived well after the last Ice Age, expanding widely through the continent during a period of globally warmer temperatures. Their life ways and subsistence patterns, therefore, would have been very different.”