Odeuropa Project Turns to AI to Find, Catalog, and Recreate the Smells of History

AI seekers will scan historical texts for smell descriptions to create a digital Encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage — and even recreate some.

The European Union has awarded an €8.2 million (around £9.7 million) grant to the Odeuropa project, which aims to build a library of historical scents — starting by training an artificial intelligence system to seek out their descriptions in texts.

"Amongst the questions the Odeuropa project will focus on are: what are the key scents, fragrant spaces, and olfactory practices that have shaped our cultures," explains Professor Inger Leemens of the effort. "How can we extract sensory data from large-scale digital text and image collections? How can we represent smell in all its facets in a database? How should we safeguard our olfactory heritage? And — why should we?"

"The project bundles an array of academic expertise from across many disciplines — history, art history, computational linguistics, computer vision, semantic web, museology, heritage science, and chemistry, with further expertise from cultural heritage institutes, intangible heritage organisations, policy makers, and the creative and fragrance industries. The team will develop novel methods in sensory mining and olfactory heritage science to collect information about smell from multinational digital text and image collections."

Odeuropa aims to find, catalogue, and even recreate historical smells. (📹: Odeuropa)

The project's initial goal is the generation of a digital Encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage, which will cover sensory qualities and meanings of detected scents, places, and practices, as well as tracing their storylines. Selected smells, meanwhile, will be chosen for "reconstruction," which will see the reborn scents used for "olfactory events and exhibits" around Europe.

"Once you start looking at printed texts published in Europe since 1500 you will find loads of references to smell, from religious scents — like the smell of incense — through to things like tobacco," says Dr. William Tullet in an interview with The Guardian on the project. "That could take us into all kinds of different scents, whether that is the use of herbs like rosemary to protect against plague, [or] the use of smelling salts in the 18th and 19th centuries as an antidote to fits and fainting."

More information on the project is available from the official website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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