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Study using AI to make scents of history

Donna Coutts, November 23, 2020 6:45PM Kids News

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Odeuropa researcher Caro Verbeek smells a pomander, which was a ball of perfume to be carried or put in a vase. Picture: Caro Verbeek/Odeuropa media_cameraOdeuropa researcher Caro Verbeek smells a pomander, which was a ball of perfume to be carried or put in a vase. Picture: Caro Verbeek/Odeuropa


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Scientists and historians will use artificial intelligence to recreate what the world smelled like hundreds of years ago.

Called Odeuropa, the pioneering study will begin in January, take three years and use AI to build an online “Encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage” of Europe in the 1500s to the early 1900s.

The AI will be trained to search historical books and documents for mentions of smells. It will also be able to scan images — such as paintings — for objects that would have had a smell.

annotated still life painting media_cameraSome of the smell references to be found in a still life painting. Picture: Odeuropa

The project is being undertaken by scientists, historians and artificial intelligence experts at universities across Europe and the UK.

Project leader Ingeer Leemans, a professor of cultural history at The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in the Netherlands said the work would trace the meaning of scents and olfactory* practices and a more complete sense of what a place was like in the past.

“This database will become an archive* for the olfactory heritage of Europe, enabling future generations to access and learn about the scented past,” she wrote on a post on the project’s website.

Waterways, for instance, may have smelled of household toilet waste or the waste products of factories.

Prof Matija Strlic smells a historical book in the National Archives of the Netherlands. Photograph: Matija Strlic media_cameraProfessor Matija Strlic smells an old book in the National Archives of the Netherlands. Picture: Matija Strlic

Dr William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, a member of the Odeuropa team and the author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, uses the example of tobacco, smoked in pipes and cigarettes. When it was introduced into Europe in the 1500s it was an exotic* smell from a far-off place. By the 1700s, people were complaining about the smell of tobacco smoke in theatres. It’s now a smell that is disappearing from what is called our olfactory landscape as laws tighten around the world about where people can smoke.

Chemists and perfumers will also recreate some of the smells.

It’s hoped that in the future, visitors to exhibitions at museums, for instance, will be able to experience the smells of the past rather than just the sights and sounds.

Making scents of history

A thing has a smell only if tiny particles of it float up into the air.

We then use cilia — small, hairlike bits inside our nose — to detect those particles and send a signal to the brain that helps us know about the smell.

Two different substances may smell the same to us but it’s possible that it’s just because we can’t tell the difference.

Scientists debate how many smells we can detect. Previous studies have put smells humans can detect into categories such as fragrant, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, popcorn, lemon, pungent and decayed.


  • olfactory: to do with smell
  • archive: record of documents from history
  • exotic: from somewhere else; usually also used to mean exciting


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  1. What is this project aiming to do?
  2. What place and time will it study?
  3. When were people beginning to complain about the smell of tobacco?
  4. Explain what a smell is.
  5. Where does your body detect a smell?


1. Describe a smell
In 500 years, there may well be a project to recreate the smells of today. Help scientists of the future to understand what the smells of 2020 are like by writing a descriptive paragraph of two smells that are familiar to you. Choose one pleasant smell and one not-so-pleasant smell.

You might choose to base your descriptions on the smells of your school or classroom on a hot afternoon, the beach or the mountains, an inner-city laneway, an industrial factory, inside a restaurant, your favourite dinner cooking, a perfume or flower, distinctive smell of your grandparents’ house or your younger sibling’s dirty nappy! Think of something interesting to describe. Close your eyes and remember the last time you smelt the aroma you wish to describe. Does it remind you of something? Is it pleasant or putrid? Is it fresh, clean air or thick, smoky, smoggy air? Does it make you want to take a deep breathe in to soak up the smell or do you want to turn your nostrils up and cover your nose? Try and use lots of interesting adjectives to allow the reader to imagine the smell.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative thinking

2. Extension
Create a title.
This project aims to produce an online ‘encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage’. This title may well be accurate but it is not very engaging.

Come up with a catchy title that can proceed this to interest more readers.

Eg ‘Pungent pongs and sweet smells – an encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage’

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative thinking

An adjective is a describing word. They are often found describing a noun. To start with look at the words before the nouns.

Search for all the adjectives you can find in the article

Did you find any repeat adjectives or are they all different?

Extension: Pick three of your favourite adjectives from the text and put them in your own sentences to show other ways to use them.

Have you used any in your writing?

Extra Reading in history