Scientists and historians are recreating the smells and ‘smellscapes’ of Europe’s past

Researchers in Europe are working to document and recreate the smells of the past from the “foul” to the “fragrant.”

A team of historians, scientists and artificial intelligence experts are collaborating on the project called Odeuropa that is set to begin next year, after being awarded a €2.8-million ($4.3-million Cdn) grant by the EU Horizon.

The goal is to scour thousands of images and pages in digital archives to identify references to significant scents from the 16th to the early 20th century, create an “encyclopedia of smells” that explores each aroma’s meaning and history, and then recreate some of those smells in the lab to be used as interactive elements in museum exhibitions.

“There’ll be a lot of trying to get the public to actually engage with smells and with our recreations of smells throughout the project,” William Tullett, a professor of European history at Anglia Ruskin University, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

“We’re really keen when we do that to try and emphasize that the past didn’t kind of smell just disgusting and titillating, but also could smell quite nice at the same time, trying to get people to understand that the past might have been foul, but it could also be fragrant as well.”

There’s a lot to learn from studying history through an olfactory lens, Tullett said.

“One of the key things on this project is that we’re not just going to be making a big catalog of the smells of the past. We’re going to be trying to think about actually how people used their noses in the past and how that differed over time,” he said.

For example, when tobacco was first introduced in the 16th century, it would have been considered an exotic and sought after scent. Later, it was commonplace. And eventually, it was a nuisance, banned from many public places.

The team will also look at how different professions would have interacted with scents. Tullett says many physicians in the 16th century believed that disease could spread through smell, or that some smells were, in fact, diseases themselves. That mode of thinking had largely died out by the 19th century.

“That means that medical practitioners are using their sense of smell in a very different way,” Tullett said. 

The smell of an old book being extracted in the Heritage Science Lab at University College London. (HMaghoub)

It’s important to keep your modern sensibilities in check when exploring these histories, he said. Some things we might consider unpleasant today would have been commonplace once upon a time. 

“One of the things that people often say is, ‘Well, in 16th-, 17th-century Europe, you know, cities and towns must have smelled pretty bad.’ And they probably would smell quite bad to us,” he said.

“But to people who were living there at the time, they may actually have got used to some of those smells, and so they would have focused on very different scents to us.”

An anonymous depiction of the sense of smell, circa 1680. (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam )

While the encyclopedia will catalogue individual scents, Tullett says one of the most interesting aspects of Odeuropa will be their efforts to recreate broader snapshots in time through synthetic smell — what he calls “smellscapes.”

“We’re also interested in recreating … what a coffeehouse … actually smelled like, what was the blend of scents that we could find there? Or in the average street in 17th- or 18th-century Paris or London or Amsterdam? What did the canals of Amsterdam smell like, for example?” he said.

Asked to paint a smellscape of a 17th-century European city, Tullett said there would be a “whole series of aromas” to account for.

“We’d be talking about the aromas of the slightly unsanitary scents, the kind of waste from butchers and various fecal matter and all that kind of stuff and urine. But we’d also be thinking about the smells of spices and fruits and vegetables in markets. We’d be thinking about the herbs and perfumes that people carried with them on their bodies as they made their way around the city, particularly to protect against diseases like plague,” he said.

“It depends where you go in the city as to what it smells like … but it would have been a rich bouquet.”

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