Scent back in time: how ancient odours can bring the past to life

For half a century, AromaPrime has been creating historically accurate scents for museum exhibits and heritage attractions. Carly Hilts spoke to Heritage Scenting Consultant Liam R Findlay to learn more about how smells can help to conjure up the distant past.


In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, a single bite of a tea-dipped madeleine is enough to transport the author back into a vivid world of recollection. Our sense of smell is even more powerful in this respect than taste, however, with a direct route between the olfactory bulbs and the parts of the brain linked to emotion and memory. This can be harnessed to great effect when creating atmospherically immersive experiences for museum exhibitions and heritage attractions – and, for the last 50 years, specialists at AromaPrime have been creating bespoke scents to help bring the past to life.

To find out more, I spoke to Liam R Findlay, the company’s Heritage Scenting Consultant – an intriguing job title with a two- fold role behind it. One aspect sees Liam advising museums and attractions about how best to use scent in their displays: whether to educate, communicate, create a sense of empathy, express a specific point, or to evoke a particular historical period. The other is developing the smells themselves, combining aromas to evoke an artefact, an animal, or an environment, from shipwrecks and Victorian slums to steam railways and the trenches of the First World War. He explained: ‘What is exciting about smell is that, when you go into a recreated set in a museum and you can smell the environment, it’s like breathing in the air of that historical world – it helps to transport you there.’

Heritage Scenting Consultant Liam R Findlay examining one of more than 500 specialist smells that AromaPrime has produced for museums, heritage attractions, and theme parks over the last half century. IMAGE: AromaPrime

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the smells required to accurately recreate certain historic settings are not particularly pleasant – among the more-than 500 speciality scents listed on AromaPrime’s website are such unappealing but evocative offerings as mildew, garum, chlorine gas, sewers, and rotting flesh – but, when the company launched in 1973 (then known as Dale Air), its main focus was removing bad smells. Founder Fred Dale began with designing pleasant aromas for places like hospitals and care homes, and also devised nostalgic scents to encourage reminiscence and conversation between residents of the latter spaces, particularly those with dementia. Many of these individuals had been young in the 1920s and ’30s, and so Fred created comfortingly familiar scents from those decades: toffee, coal fires, horses, carbolic soap.

Back in the 1970s, in order to test the accuracy of the smells, Fred relied on showing them to multiple people to see if he had cracked the right combination to match their memories. Today, though, AromaPrime has an array of techniques at its disposal to fine-tune a particular product. For smells with a modern-day equivalent, such as many food aromas, finding a direct comparison is not difficult, but the company tends to seek expert advice on more obscure odours. Sometimes, the staff of the museum that they are working with are able to lend their experience to this end – for example, when the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre in London required the smell of ether, AromaPrime put together some samples based on historical descriptions, which were then tweaked following feedback from clinicians within the museum’s team who had used the substance in their own practices.

Fred Dale, founder of AromaPrime. IMAGE: AromaPrime

Historical sources are also invaluable to tailoring a recipe – for example, written accounts of the herbs used by 17th-century plague doctors – as is archaeological evidence. When a new history-of-medicine attraction, Sick to Death, opened in Chester, it included a pungent feature courtesy of AromaPrime. This was the sulphurous smell of rotten Roman eggs, created in consultation with Deva Roman Discovery Centre, and inspired by a clutch of eggs found, still sitting in their basketry tray, during Oxford Archaeology’s excavations at Berryfields, Buckinghamshire (CA 360). Depending on what a particular museum has access to, the team can use cutting-edge scientific techniques too: if the site can do gas chromatography, for example, they can analyse an artefact compound by compound and produce an incredibly accurate design for its smell – though this is a process that they do not use often, as they prioritise Fred Dale’s wish to make their creations affordable and accessible for all museum budgets.

Follow your nose

There are, of course, some situations where no direct evidence is available – such as when AromaPrime was tasked with devising a T. rex smell to give encounters with the Natural History Museum’s life-sized animatronic dinosaur even more impact. As no human has ever smelled a T. rex, they turned to animals alive today for comparative evidence. We know that these prehistoric predators ate bone – a trait that they share with hyenas – so it is possible that their dung would have smelled similar. (In cases like these, the company often contacts zoos for reference material.) Fossil evidence also attests that the T. rex had serrated teeth that they used like steak knives to slice into the flesh of their prey, and that some of that meat became trapped between their teeth. With no way to clean them, Liam said, this would have produced seriously foul breath. Both of these ideas fed into a design for a convincing T. rex smell – but, when it came to finalising the aroma, there had to be a degree of compromise. It was decided that the planned combination of rotting meat and hyena dung would be too unpalatable for unsuspecting visitors to encounter if it seeped out into the wider museum space – so instead they upped the emphasis on smells of prehistoric swamps and forests. In another instance, they manufactured a dodo smell – again a challenge, as no one alive will have experienced it – so the team blended scents based on the extinct bird’s humid environment, on the dirt of its local geology, and on the fruits that they are known to have eaten.

The company’s first big museum project came when the development team behind the JORVIK Viking Centre in York contacted Fred Dale. This immersive attraction with its famous ride through the streets and back yards of a Viking settlement remains hugely popular today – welcoming its 20-millionth visitor last year – but when it opened in 1984 it was truly innovative in the way it presented the city’s past. ‘Previously, museums were often a series of glass cases, which had their own musty smell but not one that encouraged you to think about the past,’ Liam said. By contrast, the JORVIK team wanted visitors to feel more engaged, for their experience to be more personal – and to achieve this, they approached Dale to commission some scents.

Tony Robinson and Fred Dale at the JORVIK Viking Centre’s opening day in 1984. IMAGE: AromaPrime

Here, archaeology really came to the fore. The JORVIK Viking Centre’s ride is based on the wealth of evidence excavated during the 1976-1981 Coppergate dig (CA 58), so Dale was spoiled for choice with inspiration to feed into the scent design. Thanks to the discovery of cess pits, fossilised human faeces, and large quantities of animal bone, it was possible to piece together what people had been eating and which animals lived nearby. The site’s waterlogged environment had also preserved plentiful evidence of local plants, the types of timber present, and imported goods, as well as the industries that had been carried out there, including carpentry, metalwork, and leatherwork. From such finds, it was easy to establish what kinds of smells would have filled the settlement – and most of them were straightforward to recreate, with accessible modern counterparts for reference.

AromaPrime’s relationship with the JORVIK Viking Centre has continued to the present day: when the River Foss flooded in 2015, the underground attraction was inundated (CA 312), and its ride had to be completely redeveloped – and, once again, AromaPrime supplied the smells. In the decades since JORVIK opened, archaeological research had revealed even more about Viking Age Coppergate, allowing new smells to be added to the ride. When it reopened in 2017 (CA 327), it included the scent of tallow to represent the presence of a candlemaker, as well as a more realistic environment informed by analysis of seeds, plants, and pollen remains.

Archaeological information has also fed into AromaPrime’s work with theme parks – attractions that, today, represent a big part of the company’s business. Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Viking-themed Valhalla ride required a similar range of smells as JORVIK, although with more theatrical/fantasy elements added. Meanwhile, Chessington World of Adventures’ Tomb Blaster is set in an ancient Egyptian tomb, for which AromaPrime used a mummy smell that they had created for museums. People expect it to be a nasty smell, related to decaying bodies, Liam said, but it actually reflected the aromatic aspects of the embalming process, involving gums, resins, honey, myrrh, and incense; they also drew on sweet-scented discoveries like the wreath of flowers found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Aromatic attractions

As for how the smells are distributed throughout attractions, in many cases aromatic oils are nebulised to create an invisible mist in the air, which is then emitted through diffusers hidden within the themed set and placed in strategic locations for maximum impact and relevance to what visitors are looking at. Sometimes, though (particularly within museums), the team has to consider the conservation needs of artefacts or paintings within the space, and in those situations they employ a technique called dry diffusion, using aroma blocks – essentially scented objects from which a specific smell rises. Generally, these are not thought to be more harmful to fragile displays than the smell coming off a visitor wearing perfume, Liam said.

Excavated evidence from the 1976-1981 Coppergate dig fed into the JORVIK Viking Centre’s design – and the smells that AromaPrime devised for it. Image: courtesy of the JORVIK VIking Centre

A similar, smaller product is also supplied for handling activities, and for interactive exhibits such as lidded boxes/drawers that you can open and smell. This gives visitors more agency about what they encounter – an important consideration, Liam said, as exemplified by the reasoning that went into the balance of the T. rex smell described above. ‘Unlike in theme parks, museum visitors might not be expecting a horrible smell to be wafted at them, and you have to think about their wider experience,’ he said.

Such interactive elements were also important to museums reopening and operating during COVID-19 restrictions – helping visitors to engage with exhibits when hands-on elements were still off-limits. For one museum, Liam designed a foot-operated mechanism, using a simple bicycle pump, that fed into a podium filled with scented material and pushed aromatic air out the top, allowing visitors to experience the smell hands-free.

While such innovations helped to keep interactivity alive as museums were emerging from restrictions, during the periods of full lockdown things were rather more challenging for AromaPrime, as all their usual customers were closed. Instead, they started marketing their aroma cubes to the customers of these customers, teaming up with companies including The Dungeons attractions and Warwick Castle to release their distinctive smells to the public – and aficionados of particular attractions snapped them up, eager to evoke happy thoughts of when they had been able to visit their favourite places. ‘You wouldn’t expect it, but people were diffusing the smell of the Torture Chamber in their homes and revisiting memories of happy days out,’ Liam said. ‘We also created the fiery, smoky smell for Alton Towers’ Wicker Man rollercoaster, and people were turning down the lights in their living room, diffusing the smell, playing music from the ride, and making their own immersive experiences.’

AromaPrime supplies specialist scents to escape rooms and rides at theme parks – such as Alton Towers’ Wicker Man rollercoaster. Image: WL2018, CC BY-SA 4.0

While the company has been working with theme parks for decades, in recent years the growing popularity of scare attractions and escape rooms have presented new challenges and new opportunities to use smells in storytelling. As Liam explained: ‘The sophistication of scare attractions has really come on – originally you would just use unpleasant smells such as vomit to make people feel scared and uncomfortable, but these days you work to build it up, like planning a piece of music. As you walk through a maze with lots of themed sets, you might actually start with a pleasant smell to create a false sense of security. Then you turn a corner and find a horrific visual and that turns those feelings on their head. You can use damp smells to create a sense of claustrophobia, and pauses are important – you don’t want people to become “nose blind”, and it makes the next smell that they experience even more impactful. Each smell is chosen to relate to the story, and at the end you need something overwhelming for the climax, to make visitors feel very scared. Smells like rotting flesh and vomit are very visceral – they connect to emotions and provoke really primal responses – and you can’t escape a smell in the same way that you could close your eyes to a scary sight or run away from an actor.’

Bringing the story full circle, AromaPrime is still producing nostalgic smells for care homes, sometimes combined with memory boxes holding leaflets and objects of local relevance to prompt conversation. As well as scents such as liquorice and pear drops, Liam said, their offerings include ‘a horrible fish smell that we use in scare mazes, but which was also very effective when we took it to some former fishermen.’ Whether evoking the distant or relatively recent past, historic aromas are a powerful tool, bringing times that we have never experienced to vivid life, and helping people to recall memories that they might not have accessed for many years.

Further information
To find out more about AromaPrime and its scents, see You can also listen to the PastCast podcast (available to stream soon); see