April 15, 2008

Smell: A Journey to the Past

I teach literature, which means I also teach history. That's just the way it works--in order for students to truly grasp literature, they must have a concept of the context. I love history, though, almost as much as I love literature. The combination? Perfection.

Students ask me a lot about which eras of the past I'd visit. It always sounds so fabulous to visit the people and places I've studied and enjoyed. But (there is always a but when it comes to time travel), I have a very sensitive nose. As part of my Five Senses Project, I'm going to treat you to descriptions of why I'm pretty happy to live now, in the age of deodorant, scented candles, and lavender soap. I present my Top 2 times and places I'd like to visit, and their olfactory negatives, along with one ancient spot with a fragrant aroma.

1. Apollo 11: 1969 had regular hygiene, right? Sure, but here's an excerpt from Michael Collins' book Carrying the Fire, describing the last stage of Apollo 11's journey home: " Meanwhile, this fastidious man and his two equally picky companions must slop about in crowded and ever more smelly surroundings. The right side of the lower equipment bay, wherein are located old launch day urine bags, discarded washcloths, and worse, is now a place to be avoided. The drinking water is laced with hydrogen bubbles (a consequence of fuel-cell technology which demonstrates that H2 and O join imperfectly to form H2O). These bubbles produce gross flatulence in the lower bowel, resulting in a not-so-subtle and pervasive aroma which reminds me of a mixture of wet dog and marsh gas. It seems degrading for Columbia to reach this smelly-old-man stage . . ."

2. Elizabethan England: A bit of a no-brainer, as there was no waste-disposal or sewer system. All trash and human waste was just dumped out into the street, to join all the animal waste congregating there. A lack of refrigeration and a culture bent on eating lots of meat added a bit of a rotting odor as well. Add to that the fact that people didn't bathe that often, and you get a pretty clear view of the smell.

The One Ancient Spot that Smelled Good: Ancient Greece
I'm actually teaching about Greek mythology, along with The Odyssey and Antigone right now, so I've been doing a spot of research, and I discovered this quote: "The archaeologists used fragrances extracted from traces left in containers at the site to recreate ancient aromas with the same techniques used in the past," said Maria Rosaria Belgiorno, the leading archaeologist. "Today, we are used to chemical and alcoholic scents, but these are fresher ones, smelling of herbs and spices, like almond, coriander, myrtle, conifer resin, bergamot — and not flowers,'' said Belgiorno, who is also the curator of the exhibit at Rome's Capitoline Museums. "The perfumes were made through the lengthy steeping of the spices in water and oil and other ancient techniques".

Apparently, the ancient Greeks actually did smell good! Maybe I should fire up that time machine after all!

1 comment:

mark said...

I still don't understand how one gets "a clear view" of smell - different sense right? And I can't even smell the color nine...