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Researchers aim to create European historical scents library

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A team of European scientists and historians announced a new project on Monday to recreate a library of scents from history on the continent.

The three-year project, called ODEUROPA, aims to capture what people would have smelled in their day to day lives starting from the 1500s, like the smell of incense and plague repellents.

The research team hopes to complete an encyclopaedia of European aromas which could give insights into the experience of people from the past.

William Tullett, a smell historian from Anglia Ruskin University, is working on the project and said he thought the research was important because smell is fundamental.

“Smell is one of our senses, it’s one of the ways we experience the world around us and it’s really crucial to our everyday lives,” Tullett told Euronews.

“During COVID we’ve had a really nice demonstration of the importance of smell. Smell loss, anosmia, has been one of the symptoms of COVID. People who have experienced that or just experience not being able to go out into public spaces like restaurants and bars. Not experiencing those smells have made people realise how important smell is to their daily lives,” he added.

The team plans to make an online archive available to the public, to become the first historical encyclopaedia of scent in the world.

“We’ll be using smell kits and smell recreations in museums across Europe like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where we’ll be matching smells to paintings using these smell kits with key aromas from Europe’s past,” Tullett said.

He added that it’s surprisingly easy to find source material to piece together smells from the past.

“The project is going to be using thousands and thousands of texts from the 16th and 17th century onwards as well as collections of hundreds of thousands of historical images,” Tullett added.

“Once you start looking in historical sources you’ll realise smell really is everywhere. So I think we’re going to have some certitude about exactly the types of smells that were all across Europe throughout the last four to five centuries.”

The research won’t just record bad smells, but good ones too. The team aims to include perfumes that were used in the past.

“One of the points of the project is to get people to realise that, whilst there are undoubtedly foul smells in the past, there are also plenty of fragrant ones too.”

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