Writtle University College and ARU have merged. Writtle’s full range of college, degree, postgraduate and short courses will still be delivered on the Writtle campus. See our guide to finding Writtle information on this site.

New project will rediscover our historic smells

Published: 17 November 2020 at 10:30

Anonymous depiction the sense of smell - in Dutch ‘De reuk’ (around 1680). ©Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (CC0 1.0)

Anglia Ruskin part of €2.8m programme to recreate and preserve past aromas

An ambitious €2.8 million research project has been launched to bring historic aromas back to life and create a unique archive of European smells from the 16th to early 20th century.

The ODEUROPA project, funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, is bringing together historians, artificial intelligence (AI) experts, chemists and perfumers, and the key smells of Europe will be shared in a series of museum events across Europe, beginning next year.

The research team involves academics from six European countries including smell historian Dr William Tullett, from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), who specialises in how people in the 17th and 18th centuries smelled their environments and manipulated the scents around them.

Dr Tullett said:

“Smell is central to our daily lives today, but it has also been central to the transformations that have created the Europe we know today. Colonisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, nationalism, commercialisation – nearly every historical process of significance has influenced what we smell.

“COVID-19 has illustrated the profoundly negative effects that smell loss – a symptom and side-effect of the disease – can have on our mental and physical wellbeing.  Additionally, with lockdowns across Europe, the smells of cities and towns have altered profoundly. 

“The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our sensory surroundings and the need to preserve the smells that have meanings to communities.”


Dr Tullett, the author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press), believes that everyone should care about smell and its history.  He added:

“Using your nose can help you understand the past, but it can also help you train your sense of smell.  The more things we smell the better we get at understanding the odours around us and the more we appreciate our sensory environments.

“This project will contain a range of details: a whole host of stories about the individual scents, noses, and smelly environments that have played a central role in European history. These will be available to the public on the web through the world’s first historical encyclopaedia of scent, bringing people across Europe closer to their olfactory heritage.”


ODEUROPA will find references to smells such as disease-fighting perfumes, tobacco or the stench of industrialisation in historic literature and paintings using state-of-the-art AI techniques, and then attempt to recreate them with the help of chemists and perfumers. 

Inger Leemans, project lead of ODEUROPA and Professor of Cultural History at VU University and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Cluster (KNAW-HuC),said:


“ODEUROPA will dive into digital heritage collections to discover the key scents of Europe and the stories they carry, then bring them back to our noses today.”


The project is the first European initiative to use AI to investigate the importance of scents and smelling, and to discover how scents have moulded our communities and traditions.

Peter Bell, Professor of Digital Humanities at FAU in Erlangen, Germany, and part of the team using machine learning and computer vision to train computers in analysing scented objects and olfactory information in historic images, said:

“We want to teach the computer to see a smell.

“Our goal is to develop a ‘computer nose’ able to trace scents and olfactory experiences in digital texts over four centuries and seven languages.”


An archive of the smells and their meaning will be stored online, accessible to all. The historic scents will be shared with museum visitors in a series of public events over the next three years and the project also has a scent logo, created by perfumer Frank Bloem, which will be available at museums and events.

ODEUROPA involves academics from KNAW Humanities Cluster (The Netherlands), FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg (Germany), Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Italy), EURECOM - Sophia Antipolis (France), Jožef Stefan Institute (Slovenia), University College London (United Kingdom), and Anglia Ruskin University (United Kingdom). 


Picture: ©Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (CC0 1.0)