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Researchers Hope To Re-Create Historic Scents From History


So what did history smell like? A new project called Odeuropa wants you to find out.

WILLIAM TULLETT: What we're aiming to do is to locate, trace, understand and preserve the smells of the past.

GREENE: That is history professor William Tullett at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. He wants to bring historic aromas as ancient as the 16th century back to life.


What makes those smells so important?

TULLETT: One of the things that we're really interested in is how some of the fundamental transformations that have characterized European history over the last 400, 500 years have affected people's smellscapes.

INSKEEP: One example of a smellscape...

TULLETT: The impact of colonization and empire and the way in which new smells have kind of come into Europe and also, of course, how other cultures have interpreted the smell of Europeans who, for example, in the 19th century were held to smell quite weird actually to non-European noses. There was a suggestion that Europeans smelled vaguely kind of like gone-off dairy because we drank lots of milk and ate lots of cheese.

INSKEEP: So historians, chemists and perfumers are trying to find historic references to scents in literature and then recreate them. Old cheese is not the only smell the project will highlight.

TULLETT: A scent that I think is endlessly fascinating to smell is civet.

GREENE: So civet is an oil secreted by an animal, the civet. They kind of look like a cross between a cat and a raccoon. Centuries ago, Europeans extracted the oil for perfumes. This is a process now viewed as inhumane.

TULLETT: Raw civet on its own smells really weird because it's got a fecal scent to it, but it also smells really nice at the same time. You know, you're kind of both disgusted and kind of intrigued, and it's kind of weirdly sexy at the same time.

INSKEEP: OK. The hope is to share these aromas in museums and create an online encyclopedia of smells. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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