Dung, snuff, fish, and old leather: these may prove to be the necessary ingredients for time travel. Academics restoring the lost smells of European history want such aromas to be introduced to a wide range of museums and tourist sites.
Working under the Odeuropa banner, a group of chemists and historians spent over two years isolating and reproducing key scents associated with significant times and places. Smell, they argue, has been unfairly ignored in academic attempts to understand the past, especially given its impact on daily life.
“There has been a hierarchy of the senses in science and in historical study. We want to see a multi-sensory approach,” said Cecilia Bembibre, senior lecturer in sustainable heritage at University College London (UCL). “There was a notion that smell was a less than noble human sense, and that it was somehow less objective, less educated and even less trustworthy.”
The consortium of experts involved in the project is headquartered in Amsterdam, but there are research bases in Germany, Italy, France and Slovenia, as well as at UCL and Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. .
Dutch scientists have created a fragrance that matches the smell of the dirty canals of old Amsterdam. Dr Marieke von Erp, project manager on the Odeuropa experience, spoke of an eye-catching mix of corpses, seawater and sewage, as well as the recreation of the pomanders once worn to mask those unwanted smells.
The larger project, funded by a €2.8 million grant from the EU’s Horizon program in 2020, aims to establish the science of olfactory history by drawing on visual and written evidence to bring together key odors generated by outdated professions, habits and diets.
“In Germany, they analyze tens of thousands of historical images related to smell, while in Italy they focus on textual analysis, from old medical formulas to cookery manuals,” said Bembibre, a researcher. from the Odeuropa project who also works at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, where she recently completed a PhD entitled Smell of Heritage.
She explained that much of the work has focused on teaching computers to recognize images related to smells, such as a sketch of someone holding their nose. By exposing digital research tools to a succession of similar images, researchers can create an algorithm that recognizes gestures in other illustrations.
Eventually, this work will allow the collection of an encyclopedia of historical odors, a secondary element of the project carried out by Dr William Tullett at Anglia Ruskin. These scents will explain the changing world environments and provide insight into the lives of those involved. Olfactory cues, the researchers say, should also be preserved for posterity, not just visual, physical and written.
But there are many nasal complexities to negotiate – as Bembibre points out: “It’s really hard to get the information you need to bring the smells back.” His own chemical work replicated the smell of 1750s potpourri at Knole – the Sackville-West family ancestral home in Kent – a description of which appears in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.
She also replicated the smell of St. Paul’s Cathedral Library in London by extracting detectable elements from the air in 2017, before it was renovated. She then invited a specialist perfumer, Sarah McCartney, to try to create the same olfactory experience based solely on her instincts about its components. In random tests, the public was equally convinced by the two attempts to imitate the smell of the library.
“We’re trying to decide if it’s academically important to preserve authentic smells with the right chemicals or if we’re just trying to evoke an experience by creating a similar effect today,” Bembibre said.
The other difficulty for researchers is that human reactions to smells have changed quite drastically. “We don’t have a historical nose. We just don’t smell the same way now, and some smells mean different things.
Fortunately, not all lost smells are unpleasant. The work also focuses on recreating forgotten incense blends and popular culinary recipes. “We really want to involve the communities. There are ‘witness noses’ alive now who can help us recreate the smells of their childhood or professions that no longer exist,” said Bembibre.
Odeuropa’s research has benefited from increased interest from commercial perfumers in niche fragrances – leather, spice and smoke are now common components in expensive brands.
Artists have also begun to approach the world of perfume, choosing to accompany exhibitions with bespoke aroma galleries, such as the Anicka Yi exhibition at Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London last fall. The Jorvik Viking Center in York led the way by introducing scents to its exhibits more than two decades ago.