A New Database Captures the Smells of European History, from 16th-Century to the Early 20th-Century

But when from a long-dis­tant past noth­ing sub­sists, after the peo­ple are dead, after the things are bro­ken and scat­tered, still, alone, more frag­ile, but with more vital­i­ty, more unsub­stan­tial, more per­sis­tent, more faith­ful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, wait­ing and hop­ing for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfal­ter­ing, in the tiny and almost impal­pa­ble drop of their essence, the vast struc­ture of rec­ol­lec­tion. — Mar­cel Proust, Swann’s Way

His­to­ry favors the eyes.

Visu­al art can tell us what indi­vid­u­als who died long before the advent of pho­tog­ra­phy looked like, as well as the sort of fash­ions, food and decor one might encounter in house­holds both opu­lent and hum­ble.

Our ears are also priv­i­leged in this regard, whether we’re lis­ten­ing to a Gre­go­ri­an chant per­formed in a cathe­dral or an ace sound designer’s cin­e­mat­ic recre­ation of the D‑Day land­ings.

With a few judi­cious ingre­di­ent sub­sti­tu­tions, we can even get a sense of what an Ancient Roman sal­ad, a 4000-year-old Baby­lon­ian stew, and a 5000-year-old Chi­nese beer tast­ed like.

Pity the poor neglect­ed nose. Scents are ephemer­al! How often have we won­dered what Ver­sailles real­ly smelled back in the 17th cen­tu­ry, when unbathed aris­to­crats in unlaun­dered fin­ery packed into high soci­ety’s unven­ti­lat­ed salons?

On the oth­er hand, giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty, do we real­ly want to know?

Odeu­ropa, the Euro­pean olfac­to­ry her­itage project, answers with a resound­ing yes.

Among its ini­tia­tives is an inter­ac­tive Smell Explor­er that invites vis­i­tors to dive deep into smells as  cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­na.

Devel­oped by an inter­na­tion­al team of com­put­er sci­en­tists, AI experts and human­i­ties schol­ars, the Smell Explor­er is a vast com­pendi­um of smells as rep­re­sent­ed in 23,000 images and 62,000 pub­lic domain texts, includ­ing nov­els, the­atri­cal scripts, trav­el­ogues, botan­i­cal text­books, court records, san­i­tary reports, ser­mons, and med­ical hand­books.

This resource offers a fresh lens for con­sid­er­ing the past through our noses, an unflinch­ing look at var­i­ous olfac­to­ry real­i­ties of life in Europe from the 15th through ear­ly 20th cen­turies.

Sur­vivors of ear­li­er plagues and pan­demics might have asso­ci­at­ed their tri­als with the puri­fy­ing aro­mas of burn­ing rose­mary and hot tar, just as the scents of sour­dough and the way a hand­sewn cot­ton face mask’s inte­ri­or smelled after sev­er­al hours of wear con­jure the ear­ly days of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic for many of us.

There are a num­ber of inter­est­ing ways to explore this scent-rich data­base — by geo­graph­ic loca­tion, time peri­od, asso­ci­at­ed emo­tion, or aro­mat­ic qual­i­ty.

Of course, you could go straight to a smell source.

Cham­ber pot” returns 18,152 results, “cadav­er“266…

The squea­mish are advised to steer clear of vom­it (421 results) in favor of the Smell Explorer’s  plea­sur­able and abun­dant food-relat­ed entries — bread, choco­late, cof­fee, pome­gran­ate, pas­try, and wine, to name but a few.

Each scent is built as a col­lec­tion of cards or “nose wit­ness reports” with infor­ma­tion as to the title of the work cit­ed, its author or artist, year of cre­ation and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion (“good”, “rank”, “pecu­liar­ly unpleas­ant and per­ma­nent”…)

Even more ambi­tious­ly, Odeu­ropa aims to give 21st-cen­tu­ry noses an actu­al whiff of Europe’s olfac­to­ry her­itage by enlist­ing per­fumers and scent design­ers to recre­ate over a hun­dred his­toric odors and aro­mas.

Odeu­ropa has also cre­at­ed a down­load­able Olfac­to­ry Sto­ry­telling Toolk­it to give muse­um cura­tors ideas for inte­grat­ing cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant odors into exhibits, a trend that is gain­ing trac­tion world­wide.

While every­one stands to ben­e­fit from the added olfac­to­ry dimen­sion of such exhibits, this ini­tia­tive is of par­tic­u­lar ser­vice to blind and visu­al­ly-impaired vis­i­tors. Exper­tise is no doubt required to get it right.

We’re remind­ed of satirist PJ O’Rourke early-80’s vis­it to the Exxon-spon­sored Uni­verse of Ener­gy Pavil­ion in Walt Dis­ney World’s EPCOT cen­ter, where ani­ma­tron­ic dinosaurs were “depict­ed with­out accu­ra­cy and much too close to your face:”

One of the few real nov­el­ties at Epcot is the use of smell to aggra­vate illu­sions. Of course, no one knows what dinosaurs smelled like, but Exxon has decid­ed they smelled bad.

Enter the Odeu­ropa Smell Explor­er here.

via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent

The Chem­istry Behind the Smell of Old Books: Explained with a Free Info­graph­ic

The Dis­gust­ing Food Muse­um Curates 80 of the World’s Most Repul­sive Dish­es: Mag­got-Infest­ed Cheese, Putrid Shark & More

Does Play­ing Music for Cheese Dur­ing the Aging Process Change Its Fla­vor? Researchers Find That Hip Hop Makes It Smelli­er, and Zeppelin’s “Stair­way to Heav­en” Makes It Milder

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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