What’s That Smell? Researchers Hope To Recreate Historic Scents From Europe’s Past

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Passers-by and horse-drawn traffic circa 1895 on Jamaica Street in Glasgow, Scotland.

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Professor Matija Strlic of the Odeuropa team smells a historic book in the National Archives of The Netherlands.

Matija Strlic/Matija Strlic / Odeuropa


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Professor Matija Strlic of the Odeuropa team smells a historic book in the National Archives of The Netherlands.

Matija Strlic/Matija Strlic / Odeuropa

The team will then work with chemists and perfumers to recreate around 120 scents — with the plan to help museums integrate them into exhibits to create an immersive step into history.

«If there’s one thing that I hope will come out of this project, it’s that the people that we interact with will go away thinking, what are the smells around me every day?» Tullet said. «How can I train my nose a bit better and engage with the smells around me?»

During the Bubonic plague, you might have smelled burning tar or rosemary, which was believed to ward off the disease. As the world faces another global pandemic, our smell-scapes are being changed again, he said.

Scent is precious, and that’s even more apparent during the pandemic, he said. One of the symptoms of the coronavirus can be a loss of smell. Once it’s gone, many people realize how important it is, he said.

Other projects concerning historic scents have noted «gross» smells, Tullet said. But he wants to show the beauty as well.

«Our approach on this project is to try and get people to take smell seriously — to see what a powerful sense is and how important it is to people’s daily lives,» Tullet said. «And to try and get people to kind of comprehend the fact that the past is not just the place that smells horrible.»

He added: «We’re trying to get people to understand both the foul and the fragrant aspects of the past.»

  • scent
  • smells
  • machine learning
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  • people
  • industrial revolution
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