A nose for history: academics recreate lost smells from the past

Dung, snuff, fish and old leather: these may turn out to be the ingredients required for time travel. Academics who are restoring the lost smells of European history want aromas like these to be introduced to a wide range of museums and tourist landmarks.

Working under the banner Odeuropa, a group of chemists and historians have spent more than two years isolating and reproducing key scents associated with significant moments and locations. Smell, they argue, has been unfairly ignored in academic attempts to understand the past, especially considering its impact on daily life.

“There has been a hierarchy of the senses in science and in historical study. We want to see a multisensory approach,” said Cecilia Bembibre, a lecturer in sustainable heritage at University College London (UCL). “There has been an idea 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 has its headquarters 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 scent to match the odour of the dirty canals of old Amsterdam. Dr Marieke von Erp, a project manager on the Odeuropa experiment, evoked a throat-catching mix of cadavers, seawater and sewage, as well as recreating the pomanders once carried to mask such unwelcome whiffs.

The wider project, funded by a €2.8m grant from the EU’s Horizon programme in 2020, aims to establish the science of olfactory history by drawing on visual and written evidence to put together the key smells generated by outdated trades, habits and diets.

“In Germany, they are analysing tens of thousands of historical images related to smell, while in Italy they are concentrating on textual analysis, from old medical formulas to cooking manuals,” said Bembibre, a researcher with the Odeuropa project who also works at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, where she recently completed a PhD entitled Smell of Heritage.

Anicka Yi’s installation at the Tate Modern last October used bespoke aromas.
Anicka Yi’s installation at the Tate Modern last October used bespoke aromas. Photograph: Nicky J Sims/Getty Images

She explained that much of the work has focused on teaching computers to recognise images that relate to smells, for example a sketch of someone holding their nose. By exposing digital search tools to a succession of similar images, researchers can create an algorithm that recognises gestures in other illustrations.

Eventually this work will allow the collection of an encyclopaedia of historic smells, a side element of the project being led by Dr William Tullett at Anglia Ruskin. These smells will explain changing world environments, as well as giving an insight into the lives of those involved. Olfactory cues, the researchers argue, should also be saved for posterity, not just visual, physical and written ones.

But there are many nasal complexities to negotiate – as Bembibre points out: “It is really hard to get the information you need to bring back smells.” Her own chemical work has reproduced the scent of a 1750s potpourri at Knole – the ancestral home of the Sackville-West family in Kent – a description of which appears in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.

She has also reproduced the smell of the library at St Paul’s Cathedral in London by extracting detectable elements from the air in 2017, before it was refurbished. She then invited a specialist perfumer, Sarah McCartney, to attempt to create the same olfactory experience based only on her instincts about its components. In random trials, the public was equally convinced by both attempts to mimic the library’s smell.

“We are trying to decide if it matters academically whether we preserve authentic smells with the right chemicals or whether we simply try 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 fairly radically. “We don’t have historical noses. We just don’t smell in the same way now, and some smells mean different things.”

Happily, not all lost smells are nasty ones. Work is also focusing on recreating forgotten incense mixtures and popular culinary recipes. “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,” Bembibre said.

Odeuropa’s research has benefited from an increased interest among commercial perfumers in niche scents – leather, spice and smoke are now common components in expensive brands.

Artists have also begun to approach the world of scent, choosing to accompany gallery shows with bespoke aromas, such as the Anicka Yi show in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London last autumn. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York led the way by introducing smells to its exhibits more than two decades ago.

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