Working dogs are being trained to sniff out ancient treasures smuggled from countries such as Syria and Iraq. The pioneering US research programme – “K-9 Artifact Finders” – has been set up in response to alarm over cultural heritage trafficking.
Dogs already play a crucial role in helping detect narcotics and explosive devices. The new programme, involving the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Centre, is hoping to use them to root out cultural artefacts in shipping containers, cargo crates, the post and luggage. Michael Danti, an archaeologist who has worked in Iran, Iraq and Syria, said that dogs can already detect soil and agricultural products, and he believes that their target scents could be further refined.
The UN security council has confirmed that terrorists generate income from smuggling cultural property. A “huge percentage” of the fifth-century Dura-Europos site in Syria has been excavated illegally, Danti said. “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.”
Red Arch, a non-profit group whose research includes investigating antiquities trafficking and archaeological looting, is also involved in the scheme. Rick St Hilaire, its founder, said the idea of using dogs came to him after he saw a news report about a dog detecting electronics: “I thought, if dogs could detect electronics, what about antiquities?”
Cynthia Otto of the Penn Vet centre, which specialises in research on detection dogs, believes the antiquities programme is unprecedented. Dogs are rewarded with play time or food, she said. “They absolutely love the work: that’s what is so wonderful.”
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