Enlisting dogs to sniff out stolen antiquities


Working dogs are vital assets in helping detect hidden narcotics, explosive devices, and other illicit products. Now the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) and the Penn Museum are part of an effort to see if dogs’ keen ability to identify and distinguish odors may assist in the effort to prevent smuggling of archaeological artifacts.

“Just as a narcotics detection dog can make a drug search that much easier, we’re hoping that these dogs may be able to help law enforcement officials identify antiquities that have been illegally collected,” says Annemarie DeAngelo, training director at the WDC.

Through a partnership with Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research, an organization that explores strategies to stop the trafficking of cultural heritage artifacts, the WDC will be training four dogs to identify the scents of archaeological objects from regions such as Syria and Iraq, where terrorist groups are profiting from the looting of antiquities. Some of these scents will be derived from legally collected artifacts currently in the Penn Museum’s collection.

Smuggling of recently excavated archaeological artifacts has become a rampant practice in the Middle East in the last several years, and is frustratingly difficult to stop. Ancient objects like coins or cylinder seals, looted from archaeological sites, are small enough to be concealed in a pocket, making them a low-risk prospect for smugglers, who profit from a high mark-up after the artifacts enter illegal markets in places like the U.S., Germany, and Japan.

Ricardo St. Hilaire, Red Arch’s executive director, first got the idea of enlisting dogs in the effort to root out antiquities smuggling after hearing about a K-9 team’s work leading to a bust of electronics equipment.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well that’s interesting,’” St. Hilaire says. “If dogs could search out electronics, I wondered if they could do the same thing with antiquities.”

Through his professional network, he wound up connecting with Cynthia Otto, director of the WDC, as well as with Michael Danti, a consulting scholar for the Penn Museum. Together they laid out a plan.


“We first want to know, can it be done?” says St. Hilaire. “Secondly, if it can be done, we’d like to offer a demonstration or a methodology that, for instance, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials can use to train their own dogs.”

In the initial stages of the study, trainers will focus the dogs’ attention on detecting objects from the Fertile Crescent region of modern-day Iraq and Syria. Rather than using the objects themselves, researchers will place absorbent material with the artifacts to absorb their scent, then use the material for training.

The “incredible collection” of the Penn Museum is a boon to this work, says Otto, and provides an array of scents to enable the dogs to attempt to discriminate among artifact types and collection locations.

“I think the Penn Museum is a great partner for the project given its tradition of fielding scientific archaeological excavations and long history being involved in preserving and protecting cultural heritage,” adds Danti, who is also an associate professor of classics at Colgate University and academic director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives. “We’re hoping these pups will give us a way to disrupt these illegal markets and take down the people on the front lines.”

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