Project Hopes to Recreate Smells of 16th Century Europe

Scientists, historians and artificial intelligence experts are hoping to recreate the smells of old Europe, so we can gain a better insight into the past.

From the strong smell of cigars to religious scents, the €2.8 million ($3.3 million) project called Odeuropa, will seek to recreate old aromas from between the 16th and 20th centuries in order to gain a better understanding of how the meanings and uses of different smells have changed over time.

The ambitious project, which is expected to last for three years, will begin in January.

Artificial intelligence will be used to screen historical texts in seven languages in order to pick up smells in books and on images.

Dr. William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, who is a member of the Odeuropa team and the author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, told Newsweek that the purpose of the project was to change the way in which people interact with museums and heritage.

He said: "The purpose and intent behind it is to try and change the way in which people engage with heritage. At the moment, museums are fairly visual places we don't really associate smell with the experience of history and the past so we're hoping this will give people a completely new way of experiencing history.

"And also because smell is crucial to our everyday lives it's something central to our experience of the world, without it we really lose out because it's so important to our well-being and covid has illustrated that, because people who have smell loss have been unable to smell the world around them and realized what they're missing."

Old smells project
The project hopes to screen historical texts to find odours Getty

Dr. Tullett also said that the project hoped to understand smells within their context.

"The smell of tobacco in the 16th century was a smell that's supposed to be very exotic, it's new, it's fascinating to people," he said. "Yet by the 17th century it's completely normalized, people have got used to it so it's part of the smells of everyday sociability, it's common in alehouses but then once we got into the 19th and 20th-century people begun to have qualms about the use of tobacco in public spaces and that's resulted in public health campaigns to prevent tobacco smoking."

The project is based on machine learning and also aims to better understand the relationship between smells and the objects as well as the places they are associated with.

"We've got massive databases of historical images and massive databases of historical texts and we're taking those databases that already exist," he said. "We're using machine learning to try and identify the most common smells that seem to come from these images and documents and trying to use that machine learning to learn where those smells most frequently crop up, what kinds of places are they associated with, what kinds of people are they associated with and also what kind of objects they're associated with.

"All of that information will be really useful in trying to put together the products of this research, which is for example a historical encyclopedia of scent which will go online by the end of the project which will be the first website of its kind."