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The Smells of Europe

If you’ve ever been curious about what the streets of 16th century Europe smelled like, wonder no more. A new project aiming to catalog the scents of the continent from the last five centuries is about to make your olfactory dreams a reality.

The Odeuropa Project is creating a digital library of European smells utilizing the latest in AI technology. The consortium is made up of a diverse group of researchers from different disciplines, including history, art history, heritage science, computational linguistics, chemistry and the creative and fragrance industries. The group aims to decipher, recreate and catalog different odors from the 16th century to present day, creating the Encyclopedia of Smell Heritage - an online database exploring the stories behind 120 scents.

But why? Well, it's not just about preserving these smells for future generations. The project’s goal is to capture the cultural meanings attached to scents and how they've shifted over time. Think about tobacco for example - the smell of tobacco has a negative connotation in modern times, but this wasn’t always the case. Tobacco was introduced to Europe in the 16th century and then went on to become a household norm by the 17th century. It was common for people to smoke indoors and in public spaces such as theaters. However, in the late 18th century perceptions shifted and people started to complain about the odor, as well as its use in public. Perceptions shifted even further when smoking bans were introduced and tobacco was associated with various health issues. Tobacco is just one example of a scent researchers are studying, others include rosemary sprigs, motor oil and dung.

To perform the study, scientists are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to identify references to specific scents in art and texts. Using computer vision and natural language processing methods, they’ll trace these references from collections at museums, archives and libraries. After analyzing, interpreting and creating a classification system, the end result will be the Encyclopedia of Smell Heritage described by Project Odeuropa as including “the sensory qualities and meanings of the scents and tracing the storylines of key scents, fragrant places, and olfactory practices. This database will become an archive for the olfactory heritage of Europe, enabling future generations to access and learn about the scented past.”

A selection of these smells will be reconstructed by the team for inclusion in future exhibits, allowing visitors to engage with history through their noses. Some museums have been running sensory storytelling exhibits for a while, like the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England. Their exhibit incorporates smells that the Viking settlers would've experienced like damp forests and rotting meat #YUM.

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Image by Jp Vale


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