Researchers Are Recreating Europe’s Centuries-Old Scents

A team of scientists will curate an “encyclopedia of smell heritage” that spans the 16th through early 20th centuries

Annotations on still life painting
Scholars will use A.I. to identify references to specific scents in artwork and texts. Odeuropa / Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, Digital Humanities, FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg

The smoky scent of a cigarette, flowery aroma of a daisy or musty smell of a book can easily evoke visions of the past. Now, reports Tom Batchelor for the Independent, an international team of researchers is hoping to capitalize on the power of artificial intelligence (A.I.) to recreate and preserve Europe’s historic odors, from the smell of tobacco to the stench of dung chips.

Per a statement, researchers from across the European Union (E.U.) will collaborate with experts from a range of disciplines, including history, computational linguistics, heritage science and chemistry, to reconstruct Europe’s “smellscape” for a project dubbed “Odeuropa: Negotiating Olfactory and Sensory Experiences in Cultural Heritage Practice and Research.” As Nicola Davis notes for the Guardian, featured odors will represent “aromas that would have assailed” the nose between the 16th and early 20th centuries.

“Much more so than any other sense, our sense of smell is linked directly to our emotions and our memories,” the research team tells the Independent.

Lead investigator Inger Leemans, a cultural historian at Vrije University Amsterdam, adds that the group will “dive into digital heritage collections to discover key scents of Europe and bring them back to the nose.”

The E.U.’s Horizon 2020 initiative—a $94 billion research and innovation program—gave researchers a $3.3 million grant to complete the project. Over the next three years, the Odeuropa team will collect data on scents as varied as rosemary sprigs, smelling salts, incense and motor oil. The researchers plan to use advanced A.I. techniques to identify and assess references to smells in historical texts written in seven languages, as well as more than 250,000 images, according to Jenny Gross of the New York Times. Their findings will eventually be published in the Encyclopedia of Smell Heritage, an online database set to explore the stories behind around 120 scents.

Odeuropa is the first European project to use artificial intelligence to untangle the cultural history of smells. But as Simon Chandler points out for Forbes, other researchers in the humanities have used machine learning to recreate portions of paintings and envision what cities looked like in centuries past.

Odeuropa project presentation

A major goal of the Odeuropa project is tracking how cultural meanings and associations made with different scents have evolved over time. Changing attitudes toward odors are often associated with larger cultural transformations, as Brian Ladd observes in The Streets of Europe: The Sights, Sounds, and Smells That Shaped Its Great Cities. As more Europeans acquired knowledge about medicine and sanitation in the 1800s, opinions about bodily functions began to shift, with people becoming less tolerant of organic odors. (Interestingly, the Times notes, scientists as recently as the late 19th century subscribed to the now-debunked miasma theory, which posited that malodorous scents were responsible for spreading diseases like cholera and bubonic plague.)

How individuals interact with certain smells—for instance, tobacco—has also evolved.

“[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,” William Tullett, a historian at Anglia Ruskin University and author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, tells the Guardian. “Once we are getting into the 18th century, people are complaining actively about the use of tobacco in theaters.”

Today, Tullett adds, smoking bans have largely made the smell of tobacco disappear from people’s daily lives.

The Odeuropea team isn’t the only group working to recreate historic smells. At the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, researchers created an olfactory exhibition that allows visitors to step back in time to the tenth century through such scents as a damp forest and rotting meat.

“One of the things that the Jorvik Viking Center demonstrates is that smell can have a real impact on the way people engage with museums. Where smell does get mentioned in museums, it is often the smells of toilets or wood burning,” Tullett tells the Guardian. “We are trying to encourage people to consider both the foul and the fragrant elements of Europe’s olfactory past.”

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