SCIENTISTS are recording the odours in a British home – so we can know what the past smelt like.

The team has been working at Knole House in south-east England, capturing the smell of books, gloves, vinyl records and even floor waxes.

They are also using written records about the house to work out its aromas, which was the home where the novelist Vita Sackville-West grew up.

“Smells help us connect to history in a more human way,” says Cecilia Bembibre, a student at University College London who has been working on the project with a chemist, Matija Strlic.

Smelly paper and books

Professor Strlic says studying in the old home was important because the objects were in their natural habitat.

“In a museum or gallery they have been taken out of context and are presented to us exclusively visually,” he says.

Professor Strlic and Ms Bembibre wrote an article in the journal Heritage Science. They asked visitors to a Birmingham gallery what they smelt when some paper was put under their noses.

The people were not told what the smell was, but the main words used to describe it were “chocolate”, “wood” and “coffee”. There were also more unusual ones, including “socks”, “incense” and “farm”.

They also asked visitors to the 18th-century library of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, who used words such as “woody”, “musty” and “sweet” for the smell of the books.

Sniffing the pages

Professor Strlic says he was inspired to do the smelly work 10 years ago when he found out that people who look after old books often sniff the pages to work out if they are degrading, or starting to fall apart.

After years of research, he says he can now tell “where the paper was made, when it was made and the level of degradation”.

Distinctive smells in danger of disappearing could be preserved, he says, even those of London’s crowded and often smelly underground trains.

“Why not the London Underground?” he says. “It might not be a smell that is particularly nice but it is one that is very familiar to us.”

Agence France-Presse

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