This week: Scent and smells

The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat, by John Reinhard Weguelin (1849–1927), depicts a funerary ceremony for a mummified cat. The cat is positioned on an altar, while a priestess offers gifts of food and milk, and wafts incense smoke. The tomb is decorated with urns of fresh flowers and lotus blossoms. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

As consumers, we are well aware that scent sells. Supermarkets have for years been luring us in with delicious (if artificial) aromas of fresh coffee and newly baked baguettes, while cinema-owners’ profits have long been boosted by the wafting smell of popcorn.

The commercial logic of such ‘scent marketing’ is undeniable: according to one study, Nike customers said their ‘intent to purchase’ went up by 84% if a floral aroma was present while they were trying on trainers – and similar tactics have worked for other retailers around the world, creating a multi-million-pound olfactory industry in their wake.

These methods are also used in other contexts – to calm nerves in hospitals and care homes, for instance, or to help hotel guests relax – though they do not always work: in 2001, it was reported that London Underground had backed out of a trial, in which a soothing ‘rosy jasmine bouquet’ was sprayed on to some tube platforms, after travellers complained that it made them feel sick.

As we discover this week on The Past, museums and other cultural institutions have not been slow to sniff out an opportunity – using scent in ingenious ways to educate and communicate, and developing bespoke aromas to evoke particular environments or historical periods, from shipwrecks to Victorian slums, and from steam railways to the trenches of the First World War.

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Carly Hilts talks to the scenting consultant Liam R Findlay about the secrets of creating historically accurate smells for the heritage sector, and explains how museums and attractions such as Warwick Castle and York’s JORVIK Viking Centre use aromas to bring the past more fully to life.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives for more about odours down the ages: we visited a scented Etruscan tomb from the 7th century BC that is now a World Heritage Site; and in a special report, we even learned how to recreate a perfume from ancient Egypt.

And finally, if all that comes up smelling of roses, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around scents and aromas in history. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!


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