Sniffer Dogs Trained to Detect Ancient Artifacts Stolen from Syria

Detection dogs, or sniffer dogs, as they are known, are used by police forces across the world as vital assets in helping detect hidden narcotics, explosive devices, and other illicit products. A program at Penn University, started by the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) and the Penn Museum, is currently looking into the possibility to use the dogs’ keen ability to identify and distinguish odors to assist in efforts 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.

The researchers formed a partnership with Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research, an organization that explores strategies to stop the trafficking of cultural heritage artifacts. WDC will be training four dogs to identify the scents of archaeological objects from regions such as Syria and Iraq, where various rebel 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 markup 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.”

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.