Smells of history – 10 pungent aromas from the past

Smells of history – 10 pungent aromas from the past

Smells often evoke the most powerful memories, but quickly disperse unrecorded, leaving our past ‘deodorized’.  Occasionally, however, the odd whiff drifts up from the pages of history…



1.   1969 – The smell of the Moon

1969 - the smell of the Moon

As well as being the first humans to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first to smell it.  When they returned to the Lunar Module after their 2 hour Moon walk 21 July 1969, they re-pressurized the cabin and took off their helmets.  The aroma of the lunar dust on their suits and equipment soon hit their nostrils.  “It was like burnt charcoal,” said Aldrin, “or similar to the ashes that are in a fireplace, especially if you sprinkle a little water on them.”  Armstrong likened it to spent gunpowder.


2.   1087 – William the Conqueror’s funeral

1087 - William the Conqueror's funeral

William the Conqueror was “great in body and strong, tall in stature,” according to Paul of Caen.  During the Norman king’s funeral service, it was discovered that his stone sarcophagus was not quite big enough to accommodate his bloated corpse, so the body had to be forced in to close the lid, whereupon, according to Orderic Vitalis, “the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd.”  The frankincense burners did little to mask the smell, so the rites were hurriedly concluded and the mourners raced for the doors.


3.   Ancient Rome – the Colosseum

Ancient Rome - the Colosseum

The citizens of ancient Rome loved the spectacle of the Colosseum’s pits and dens being flung open, setting loose exotic, savage creatures to fight it out.  Rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, leopards, wild boars, elephants, even ostriches were pitted against each other, then later against men in full armour, then against unarmed, condemned criminals and Christian martyrs.  Although the Romans enjoyed the sight of bloodshed in the ensuing slaughter, they did not like the smell of it.  Therefore the Colosseum was suffused with a heady brew of spices and saffron boiled in wine, delivered in jets through a myriad of concealed tubes which pierced the stonework.


4.   1945 – Hitler’s study in the Berlin Bunker

Hitler and Eva Braun

On the afternoon of 30 April 1945, with Russian troops less than 500 yards from the bunker, Adolf Hitler and his wife of 40 hours Eva Braun said farewell to their fellow occupants and retired to his personal study.  Around an hour later a loud gunshot was heard.  Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, opened the study door.  As well as the gas from a discharged firearm, he also smelled the sickly scent of burnt almonds, a common observation made in the presence of prussic acid (the aqueous form of hydrogen cyanide).  Both Hitler and his wife were dead.  Seated on the sofa, Hitler had shot himself in the right temple with his pistol.  Eva, sat beside him, had drawn up her legs on the sofa, her face contorted through the bite of a cyanide capsule.


5.   1492 – Christopher Columbus smells tobacco

1492 - Christopher Columbus smells tobacco

When Columbus first set foot fin the New World on 12 October 1492 (likely at San Salvador Island), he was approached by natives who presented various gifts.  He recorded in his journal: “the natives brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance.”

Columbus and his crew threw them away, not appreciating the significance of the aromatic leaves.  It was only when the natives were observed smoking them wrapped in rolls of palm that the concept of smoking was understood and taken up by the crew.  Europeans had found a new addiction and the craze for tobacco smoking soon swept the Old World.

Not everyone took to it.  One of Columbus’ crewman, Rodrigo De Jerez, so alarmed the locals in his hometown in Spain when they saw and smelled the pungent smoke exhaled through his mouth and nose they reported him to the Spanish Inquisition.  He was imprisoned for 7 years, because “only the Devil could give a man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth”.


6.   Ancient Judea – the court of King Herod

Ancient Judea - the court of King Herod the Great

Anyone in the presence of the biblical king Herod the Great in the last few weeks of his life would probably have gagged on the stench of foul-smelling rotten meat emanating from his undergarments.

Modern physicians have concluded that, based on accounts by historians Flavius Josephus and Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod most likely expired from chronic kidney disease complicated by Fournier’s gangrene – or gangrene of the genitalia.  Josephus wrote: “He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumors of the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen, and gangrene of the privy parts.”

Chronic kidney disease often causes ulcerations of the intestinal tract and one possible cause of Fournier’s gangrene in Herod was perforation of the intestine, with infection extending into the scrotum and penis.  However, it is also possible that he scratched himself raw, allowing bacteria to be introduced into the skin.  Herod’s personality defects predated his illness, but his final symptoms probably made them much worse.


7.   1769 –  Captain James Cook smells the natives of Tahiti

1769 - Captain James Cook smells the natives of Tahiti

Among the first Europeans to have contact with the natives of the South Pacific island of Tahiti, Captain Cook wrote a balanced account of their smell:

“They are very cleanly people, both in their persons and diet, always washing their hands and Mouth immediately before and after their Meals, and wash or Bathe themselves in fresh Water 3 times a day, morning, Noon, and Night.

The only disagreeable thing about them is the Oil with which they anoint their heads, Monoe, as they call it; this is made of Cocoanutt Oil, in which some sweet Herbs or Flowers are infused. The Oil is generally very rancid, which makes the wearer of it smell not very agreeable.* (*Other voyagers have, on the contrary, described the odour of this sweetened oil as agreeable).”


8.   1945 – Hospital treatment room on the outskirts of Hiroshima

1945 - Hiroshima

The first of only 2 nuclear weapons ever used in combat was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, killing around 150,000 people.  Hiroshi Sawachika was a 28 year-old army doctor stationed at the army headquarters in Ujina, 2½ miles from ground zero, when the bomb exploded.  He was not seriously injured and was tending to other staff’s wounds caused by flying glass, when injured citizens from the town began to flood towards them – the nearest medical facility left standing.

Decades later, he recalled stepping inside the treatment room: “I found the room filled with a smell that was quite similar to the smell of dried squid when it has been grilled.  The smell was quite strong.  It’s a sad reality that the smell human beings produce when they are burned is the same as that of the dried squid when it is grilled.  The squid – we like so much to eat.  It was a strange feeling, a feeling that I had never had before.  I can still remember that smell quite clearly.”


9.   1545 – Items from the Tudor warship Mary Rose

1545 - the Mary Rose

When Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose sank before his eyes in the Solent while battling a French invasion fleet on 19 July 1545, it took to the seabed a Tudor time capsule of almost 20,000 artefacts that remained well preserved over the next 4 centuries.  When they began to be excavated in the 1970s, some still retained their original smell – including a surgeon’s jar with a strong menthol odor, and the rancid animal fat of the lantern candles.


1783 - first manned balloon flight

10.   1783 – First manned Balloon Flight

On 15 October 1783 the Montgolfier brothers successfully launched the first manned fight in a hot air balloon.  Étienne Montgolfier was the first human to lift off from the earth, ascending to an altitude of 80 feet, which was the length of the tether the huge balloon was fixed to.

The balloon was made of paper and (lavishly decorated) cloth.  To inflate it, the brothers lit a fire on the ground beneath it – the heat released helped it float.

To lessen the risk of setting the craft alight and keep the burning flame low, they burned a combination of straw, chopped wool and dried horse manure.  What the enthusiastic crowds thought of the resulting noxious smoke is not recorded.


Earth's History in 1 Minute

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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015