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Archaeologists In Syria Use 'Data Water' To Confound Antiquities Smugglers


The weapon involves smart technology, though not a smart bomb. It's actually smart water. NPR's Deborah Amos reports on people fighting extremists with a paintbrush.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We're going to start with a demonstration. And here's the scene. I'm in Collette Loll’s kitchen. She's an expert on art forgeries, committed to stopping the illicit trade in antiquities. She's also a spokesperson for SmartWater CSI as the company announces a partnership with Syrian archaeologists to save ancient artifacts.

COLLETTE LOLL: Yeah. I've got a very small paintbrush here. And I have a ceramic vase here, not unlike what you would see in the field in the Middle East.

AMOS: Loll dips a paintbrush in a small bottle of water. She calls it forensic liquid. It's nanotechnology - small particles suspended in water.

Those are little dabs? Yeah.

LOLL: So you just need a microscopic amount.

AMOS: And you can get enough data off of that tiny dab in a laboratory to say this came from a specific place?

LOLL: Absolutely, just like a fingerprint will tell us exactly where this came from.

AMOS: It's invisible when it dries until Loll clicks on an ultraviolet flashlight.

Wow. I can see it.

LOLL: This can't be removed. You can't wash this off. You can't scrub it off. You can't remove it. This will stay on for years.

AMOS: Combating smugglers is a technological arms race, she says. The thief is no longer one guy with a shovel. It's a highly sophisticated commercial operation, an organized crime. Smugglers use satellite trackers, dig sites with heavy equipment and sell on social media. Now, SmartWater technology puts the buyers on notice.

LOLL: We can prove that people are actually trafficking in stolen goods. That innocent ownership defense just doesn't apply when you've got something that's irrefutable proof that something has been stolen.

AMOS: The smugglers are on notice too, says Amr Azm, a Syrian archaeologist who now teaches Middle East history in Ohio. He tested for any damage the high-tech water might do to ancient stones, then led an underground network of Syrian activists for tests in the field. They took water bottles and spray cans to a museum in northern Syria to paint valuable ancient mosaics from the Roman era, a lucrative target for smugglers. It was a risky mission, says Azm, because it's a war zone, also because ISIS militants make so much profit in the smuggling trade.

AMR AZM: I think this is a major threat to their activity as the use of this material becomes more and more widespread, more objects and items are marked.

AMOS: SmartWater was developed for police departments, sprayed on property to help recover stolen goods and catch the thieves. This is the first application for ancient artifacts, a test in Syria that could be repeated across the Middle East, says Azm.

AZM: I mean, one of my dreams would be to actually one day be able to put SmartWater in drones and fly the drones over archaeological sites and just spray the whole site.

AMOS: It's a new use for drones in the region - to save ancient heritage. Deborah Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.