Can ancient smells help us time travel through human history?

Inside ‘sensory archaeology’ and the challenge of studying the scents of artifacts.
Incense burning with ancient smells in front of a Buddhist temple
The fragrances of old incense will be added to a "scent library" created by archaeologists. Spandan Pattanayak

Researcher Barbara Huber’s favorite scent to wear is Hermes’ Jardin Sur Le Nil, with its hints of citrus and florals, accompanied by base notes of iris and musk. It’s a classic in the perfume world, but is far more contemporary than the millennia-old aromas and resins she works with at the Max Planck Institute’s Department of Archaeology. The odorous triterpenes and lipids of ancient goods offer a potential glimpse into the scents of the past—and how to recreate them. 

“It’s very tricky, because when archeologists come to the site, obviously the ephemeral and the fluid scents are gone,” Huber says. “We cannot have them anymore, and that’s how we tackle this question. We look for tiny remains of organic residues from the former substance that was used in order to produce the smell.”

Huber’s recent Nature Human Behavior paper on the reconstruction of historic fragrances outlined a “call to action” for archeologists to explore this relatively new science. She reviewed the potential uses for replicating scents from artifacts, as well as the tools behind the practice.

[Related: Eat like an ancient Roman by recreating bread from Pompeii]

Olfaction recreation is a tool used in sensory archeology, a research method that involves every piece of a historical site, beyond just the visual aspects of artifacts. It incorporates the sensorium: the entire apparatus of one’s perception of the world. By rebuilding the smellscapes of past civilizations with molecular science, Huber hopes that archeologists can come to a more complete understanding of ancient life in places like Egypt, Tayma, and beyond. 

To bring back faded scents from archaeological digs, Huber and her colleagues must first sample the artifacts before extracting odorous molecules. Then, they have to identify them within “the scent archive.”

The term “scent archive” might bring to mind images of rows of vials or tubes, like at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Instead of a physical archive of scents, however, Huber explains that it’s a library of sampled artifacts and data. After molecules have been identified through chemical analysis, it’s possible to reconstruct the ancient odors through modern forms of the scents.

“We just label them as an archive, like the soil, the dental calculus, the containers, the vessels,” Huber says. “They are like archives for us that still contain scented substances.”

Japanese fishmongers cleaning, cooking, and eating in a blue, red, and black ink woodcut
What would it have smelled like in a 17th-century hibachi restaurant, like this one depicted in this woodcut, Ebisu No Namazuya? Library of Congress

Scent reconstruction has already been used in other aspects of Huber’s work, notably to study the smell of ancient incense burners at the Tayma oasis in modern-day Saudi Arabia. The assessment of the incense resin and soot on the artifacts found that the residents of the settlement burned frankincense, myrrh, and mastic nearly two millennia ago. Those results helped Huber’s team place the Tayma oasis on a map of trade routes, as well as outline the social uses of various compounds and smells during daily life.

“You can get a better understanding of a lot of different aspects like trade, perfumery, cosmetics, hygiene, and culinary practices if you look at spices and stuff,” Huber says. “So it is not just about the scent and recreating that. It’s also about all the different information we can learn about the past by studying this more closely.”

By analyzing aromatic compounds, researchers can more easily place artifacts in the paleo-environmental record and into an archaeological context. The rituals, perfumes, medicines, and trades of ancient peoples can be found within the scent record. But what impact does that have on the world’s populace today?

“If museums want to use specific exhibitions and have the scent there, the people can perceive the past in a different way,” Huber says. “It can bring the past back to life in a different way than it has been done before.”

Two couples and a cherub sit around a floral bouquet in a faded painting.
Paul Scarron’s mid-17th century linen panel depicts the senses of hearing and smelling, as couples play instruments and smell flowers. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The challenge, however, with reconstructing old scents is connecting the chemistry to the sensory experience. It might entail more than analyzing artifacts and making cocktails to spritz into the air.

Professor Charles Spence heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford’s Somerville College, studying the psychology of human perception and the interactions of senses. He argues that scent is closely linked to memory and emotion.

“I think it’s a part of the environment that we’re not aware of mostly, but is always present,” Spence says. “It does have a sometimes profound effect on our mood and well-being.”

Human responses to scents are largely learned instead of innately known, he explains. For example, the popular Victorian title Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management called garlic “offensive” and “acrimonious.” But today, it’s largely embraced in Western cuisine, indicating a shift in public perception over the last two centuries. As such, Spence is wary of hoping to experience the smells of the past in the same way that ancient people did.

“I think we can’t smell through their noses,” he says. Some scents do appear to be hardwired into organisms’ brains, according to recent medical research, mostly to help them avoid danger. However, mammalian brains leave space for learned responses to different stimuli as an individual grows, changing the perceptions to odors out in the world. 

Still, Spence believes that smelling the scents of past events, such as the spice parades through the center of London in the 16th and 17th centuries, would be a valuable “curiosity.” Beyond that, the technology can reveal valuable information to historians and archaeologists researching ancient human life.

“We want to get people’s attention because we believe that we can learn a lot about the past when we study scent,” Huber says. “My hopes are really that people are seeing that research in this field as another component of archaeology.”