Recreating Europe’s Lost Scents

What did the Past Smell Like? This Project Aims to Find Out


Innovation, Study
Recreating Europe’s Lost Scents | What did the Past Smell Like? This Project Aims to Find Out

Smell is our most underrated sense, and the one that we probably spend the least time thinking about. However, consciously or not, the olfactory portal to taste and memory, dominates and enhances our lives. Pleasant fragrances, like flowers, freshly laundered clothing, and savory soup boiling over on the stove can considerably improve our moods.

When it comes to history, smell is even more underrated. We can visualize ornate carriages, their large wooden wheels rolling down the cobblestone streets of 18th century England. We can imagine the repetitive chug-chug of diesel trains shipping boxcars of coal across the United States. Now, a group of researchers want to help us figure out what these memories smelled like as well, Smithsonian Magazine reports.

The project, named Odeuropa: Negotiating Olfactory and Sensory Experiences in Cultural Heritage Practice and Research”, has historians, linguists, artificial intelligence specialists, and chemists working together to recreate the scents of the past. Although it's headquartered in Amsterdam, its researchers span the continent of Europe. 

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Odeuropa is funded by an EU Horizon programme grant with the goal of recreating historical odors from sixteenth through twentieth century Europe, using archived documents, photographs, and paintings. 

According to Inger Leemans, a cultural historian and a lead investigator on the project, Odeuropa will “dive into digital heritage collections to discover key scents of Europe and bring them back to the nose.” Afterwards, the results will be published in an online database called the Encyclopedia of Smell Heritage. 

Nose Witnesses
The Guardian cites Cecilia Bembibre, another researcher on the team, and a lecturer in sustainable heritage at University of College London. “We don’t have historical noses. We just don’t smell in the same way now, and some smells mean different things,” Bembibre explains.

In other words, many historical smells are related to defunct trades and foods that no longer exist today. Odeuropa is at the forefront of rediscovering these odors that have been lost to history.

Bembibre already has experience with bringing back lost smells. Before St Paul’s Cathedral in London was refurbished in 2017, Bembibre extracted scent information from the cathedral’s air. Afterwards, a specialist perfumer was able to use data to recreate the smell. The manufactured scent was convincing enough to pass a random trial.

Bembibre hopes to continue to rely on what she calls “nose witnesses” to help in recreating scents. She explains, “We really want to engage communities. There are ‘nose witnesses’ alive now who can help us recreate smells from their childhoods or from trades that no longer exist.”

AI assist
Where no “nose witnesses'' are available, Artificial Intelligence comes to the rescue. According to Actuia, thousands of documents and photos will be analyzed by Odeuropa’s AI program. The program will extract any clues from them that refer to a smell. 

Smithsonian Magazine reports that AI analysis has already been used to recreate lost visuals, such as missing pieces in paintings or long-lost cities. This is the first time it is being applied to historical smell analysis.

Analyzing history through smells
After finding and recreating the smells, Odeuropa researchers will also unravel the cultural milieu wherein the scents occurred. When it comes to understanding history, the “nose knows.” 

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Changes in odors have played a significant role in historical and cultural shifts. For example, in the 19th century, some Europeans proposed the miasma theory; this hypothesis assumed that diseases were spread through powerful and unpleasant stenches. It occurred concurrently to Europeans acquiring knowledge of sanitation and in general smelling better on a regular basis. 

Tobacco’s role in history is another lesson explored through the olfactory sense. William Tullett, historian and author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, explains “[Tobacco] is a commodity that is introduced into Europe in the 16th century that starts off as being a very exotic kind of smell, but then quickly becomes domesticated and becomes part of the normal smell-scape of lots of European towns. Once we are getting into the 18th century, people are complaining actively about the use of tobacco in theaters.”

Odeuropa hopes to bring back memories from far beyond childhood summers, and conjure up centuries of lost and found history, through the power of smell.

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