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A European project costing 2.5 million pounds sterling aims to produce “good and bad” smells from our past, whether those related to the industrial revolution, and even Marie Antoinette’s perfume.
In this context, Anglia Ruskin University is helping to build an archive of scents from the 16th to early 20th centuries.
Dr. William Tollett, a Cambridge-based aromatherapy historian, said that since scents are fundamental to everyday life they “deserve to have an archive”.
The results will be published online and in museums across Europe next year.
The Odoruba project will bring together historians, artificial intelligence experts, chemists and perfumers from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Slovenia and Britain.
He hopes they will recreate the scents that mimic the chemical and manufacturing processes that smelled the industrial revolution.
Dr. Tolette said: “We imagine that the past was a smelly place. We live in a much cleaner and more beautiful world today, but one of the points of the project is to get us away from the idea that the past was completely stinky, and try to encourage people to think about bad and fragrant smells.”
He added, “Covid 19 has shown the profound negative effects that loss of smell, a symptom of the disease and its side effects, can have on our mental and physical health. The epidemic has highlighted the fragility of our sensory surroundings and the need to preserve the scents that have value in societies.”
The project will use artificial intelligence of computers to find references to scents such as disease-fighting perfumes and tobacco in historical products, whether in literature or paintings.
The university, which is based in Cambridge and Essex, said it would then attempt to recreate odors with the help of chemists and perfumers.
Professor Peter Bell, professor of digital humanities at Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, said: “We want to teach computers to see smell. Our goal is to develop a computer nose capable of tracking odors and olfactory experiences in digital texts over 4 centuries and in 7 languages.”