What Does History Smell Like?

The Embalming of William the Silent, 1584

When William the Silent, Prince of Orange, was killed in 1584, his court physician rushed to embalm his body the same day, to preserve it for eight to 10 years. The reconstructed smell is fresh, sweet, pleasant and slightly medicinal. It has notes of myrrh, oregano, sage, olibanum, styrax, benzoe, lavender, thyme, rosemary, iris, rose and musk. (Scent created by Caro Verbeek in partnership with Historisch Museum Den Briel)

Dr. Verbeek approaches past smells by attempting to recreate versions of them, as she did with the Battle of Waterloo, making a perfume of sorts that might be associated with historical events, people and works of art. She has captured the odor of the locker room of the Dutch soccer team after its 1988 European championship victory (coconut oil, sweat, Champagne, a deodorant called “Fresh Up,” dirty clothes and a specific brand of body wash). She also used medical history to try to replicate the smell of the embalming of William the Silent, Prince of Orange after his assassination in 1584. “This one actually smells fresh and medicinal and pleasant,” Dr. Verbeek said, noting that more than 30 ingredients were used in his embalming, including myrrh, oregano, sage, lavender, rosemary, iris and musk. She often works from texts, like a court medical history, using her own sense of smell and by interviewing “nosewitnesses,” as in the case of the Dutch soccer team.

The scents of other disappearing and threatened environments include one in the Netherlands, called a polder, a low-lying tract used for irrigation and dairy farming. In recent years, polders have been subject to floods and the repurposing of land for factories or housing. Some fear they may begin to disappear as sea levels rise. In 2005, an artist named Birthe Leemeijer and Alessandro Gualtieri of the perfumer Nasomatto worked with residents of Mastenbroek, a small polder village, to make a perfume based on this smell called “essence de Mastenbroek,” which was snapped up by many Dutch people abroad who missed home.

“You can take a photograph of the land but it’s hard to capture the smell,” Dr. Verbeek said.

Still, part of the beauty and poignancy of the project is that it only approaches the smell of a polder — it can never fully recreate it. “Whatever methods you use, whether it’s gas chromatography or analyzing molecules from historical objects, it can never be a real reconstruction,” Dr. Leemans said. “Even if you had the complete description of an 18th-century perfume and you could recreate it, it would still smell different on your 21st-century body. It will always be an interpretation.”