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Striker, a U.S. Department of Agriculture brown tree snake detector dog, scratches at a cargo load notifying his handler that he has found a snake during a daily training session. Research has begun to see if dogs can detect smuggled antiquities too.

K-9 Artifact Finders Plan to Sniff Out Smuggled Antiquities


An innovative US research program is underway to sniff out smuggled antiquities. Called K-9 Artifact Finders, it is a project set up to train sniffer dogs to aid in the battle against cultural heritage looting. The primary focus right now is in seeing if the dogs can detect artifacts from conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.

According to The Guardian , the working dog program is the brain child of Rick St. Hilaire, founder of Red Arch – a non-profit group which has research interests in archaeological looting and cultural heritage trafficking. Apparently the idea came to St. Hilaire after he saw a news report showing that a dog could detect electronics, he said , “I thought, if dogs could detect electronics, what about antiquities?”

BBC News reports the project is still in the early stages. The researchers are training five dogs right now to see if there is something similar enough about the scent of ancient artifacts that the dogs can detect it. If not, the project would have to focus on different regions – and that’s too labor intensive for it to be viable.

A dog searching for an ancient artifact in a ‘scent wheel.’

A dog searching for an ancient artifact in a ‘scent wheel.’ ( Dr. Jennifer Essler, Penn Vet Working Dog Center )

The research is being carried out at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center. A press release from the Center explains the three phases planned for the program. First, dogs are being trained to sniff for artifacts from the Fertile Crescent region of modern-day Iraq and Syria – two key locations these days for cultural heritage looting.

Dr. Cynthia Otto, the executive director and principal researcher at Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, told BBC News that they are starting the dogs with detecting pottery and want to see if there is something common enough about the scent of ancient treasures that the dogs will also identify artifacts made of other materials. If needed, the researchers will train the dogs to identify different ‘classes’ of artifact smells – such as bronze and other metals.

If the dogs are successful in identifying target odors, the press release says the project will move on to phase two, in which funding will be sought to complete on-site testing with the dogs at airports and in cargo facilities. Finally, phase three of the project is set to be a demonstration program where dogs will search crates and baggage with customs officials at national borders.

Iraq and Syria are the areas of focus because both have been heavily attacked by looters recently. Archaeologist Dr. Michael Danti, who has worked in Iran, Iraq and Syria and is a principal consultant on the K-9 Artifact Finders project, says, “Terrorists, organized crime, and common criminals are destroying archaeological sites on an industrial scale to cash-in on illegal profits. That is why we need to find out if we can train dogs to help.”

Danti gave The Guardian an example, stating that the Dura-Europos archaeological site in Syria has been wrecked by looters. He explained , “It would take centuries for archaeologists to do that much excavation scientifically. That’s just one site. We see this all over the conflict zone.”

Remains of the main citadel and palace above the Euphrates. Dura-Europos, Syria.

Remains of the main citadel and palace above the Euphrates. Dura-Europos, Syria. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

There is much hope in the program being successful and support behind the research. Danti, for example, believes that the target scents for working dogs can be refined past the current levels in which they can detect soil and agricultural products.

St. Hilaire stressed the importance of the goal , “We must stop the crime of transnational antiquities trafficking.” And Dr. Lou Ferland, a retired police chief, head of The United States Police Canine Association, and project advisor, said, “Dogs may be the right law enforcement partner to get the job done.”

Finally, Otto expressed her belief in the project , “The kind of canine training we will undertake for K-9 Artifact Finders is unprecedented. We think it is innovative and doable.”

Sniffer dog.

Sniffer dog. (Garry Knight/ CC BY 2.0 )

Top Image: Striker, a U.S. Department of Agriculture brown tree snake detector dog, scratches at a cargo load notifying his handler that he has found a snake during a daily training session. Research has begun to see if dogs can detect smuggled antiquities too. Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Katrina M. Brisbin

By Alicia McDermott

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