What does Europe smell like in the 16th century? Although books record events in the past, they still fail at encapsulating the scents during that time. In an effort to know the scents in Europe from centuries back, a team of European scientists has launched the Odeuropa project.

Good thing anecdotes provide some clues about how certain places, items, and people would have smelled in the past. Along with artificial intelligence (AI), scientists hope to recreate the scents that inhabitants of Europe once smelled 500 years ago. These include the herbs that protect against the plague, industrial scents, and harsh tones of tobacco.

This three-year project is made possible by the European scientists and historians from UCL, Anglia Ruskin University and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, who received a €2.8 million (£1.5 million) grant from the EU Horizon 2020 program for the Odeuropa project.

At the end of this project, they hope to create a complete encyclopedia of European aromas that could give insights of the experiences of people from the past.

Developing Artificial Intelligence to Determine Scents of the Past

According to The Guardian, the first step of the Odeuropa project is developing the AI that will screen historical texts in seven languages for the description of scents and their context and spotting aromatic items within images like paintings. The first step is scheduled to be finished by January 2021.

Dr Sara Tonelli of Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FDK) said that the AI will help them extract information from texts. Then they will analyze the example of industrial smells which they expect to find a lot of mentions in texts by Italian futurists. An example of that is the smell of motor oil.

The information gathered will help make an encyclopedia of scents of Europe from 100 to 500 years ago. It will also include some discussions about the types of noses from the past and the kind of people that these odors play a significant role and what it meant to them, said Dr.William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

He added that the project is going to be thousands and thousands of texts about the aromas of the 16th and 17th centuries and the succeeding centuries after. Also, it is a collection of thousands of historical images.

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Creating a Modern-Day Version of the Extinct Smell

The information in the encyclopedia will include the individual odor and where it was used and what it was made of. But the raw information will be given to chemists and perfumers to make a modern-day version of those odors that have gone extinct now.

These recreated scents will become available to the museums and attractions to provide a more authentic experience for visitors. Dr. Tullet said that one of these smells will be tobacco which is an essential smell in European history and heritage.

Its smell is described as a hot, smoky, and pungent smell but it is not one smell at all as perfumers and tobacconists have experimented with adding scents to tobacco in all kinds of ways.

"But as a historian, it's also interesting for me because it links to histories of sociability, of trade and colonization and also health," Dr. Tullet said.

Read More: Does Eating Spicy Food Make Someone Smell Bad?

Check out more news and information on the Sense of Smell in Science Times.