Smells of the bygone era: Project ‘Odeuropa’ aims to recreate old European scents

Smell is most definitely a cultural phenomenon and not just a sensory experience. From certain scents reminding people of their childhood to bringing back memories of an old lover, smell holds a great value in memory making and remembrance. 

With covid-19 and the loss of smell as symptom, the importance of the olfactory system has increased. 

Scientists, historians and artificial intelligence experts in the UK and Europe are teaming up for a €2.8 million Odeuropa project to recreate aromas from the period between 16th century and early 20th century Europe. 

“Smell is an urgent topic which is fast gaining attention in different communities. Amongst the questions the Odeuropa project will focus on are: what are the key scents, fragrant spaces, and olfactory practices that have shaped our cultures,” reads the project description.

The three-year project, which is due to begin in January, aims at creating an online Encyclopedia of Smell Heritage that would describe the sensory qualities and meanings of scents. A selection of smells will then be ‘reconstructed’ using heritage science techniques. 

“The ultimate goal of the Odeuropa project is to show that critically engaging our sense of smell and our scent heritage is an important and a viable means for connecting and promoting Europe’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage”, says the project website. 

The project will also include a guide on how museums can use smells to make the experience more realistic and to make it more accessible to people with special needs. 

According to the Guardian, the first step of the project “will be to develop artificial intelligence to screen historical texts in seven languages for descriptions of odours – and their context – as well as to spot aromatic items within images, such as paintings.”

Researchers are not just interested in studying the good aromas of past centuries, but also the bad smells, like dung or the stenches of industrialization and the sewage issues that plagued some European cities.

They, too, can be dispensed in museums to help people connect with the past, so long as they do not scare visitors away,” said Dr Leemans, a Professor of cultural history at Vrije University Amsterdam, while talking to The New York Times.