There's Something Rotten in the State…Bad Smells in Antiquity

butchering-pigsThere’s Something Rotten in the State…Bad Smells in Antiquity

László Bartosiewicz (Loránd Eötvös University, Hungary)

European Journal of Archaeology: Vol 6 (2): 175-195 (2003)


Smells are extremely important in everyday life. They provide information concerning our environment and evoke associations. In archaeology, however, similarly to other aspects of life in the past, smells can be studied only indirectly. In this study, the organic remains of animal exploitation have been studied at various (prehistoric, classical and medieval) sites. Having identified the sources of bad smells, their distributions were studied in the light of prevailing wind directions and settlement structure. Culturally different attitudes to ‘bad’ smells are also discussed.

Archaeological excavations offer only fragmentary evidence from the material culture of past peoples. The smell of freshly uncovered earth has replaced the plethora of sensory stimuli found in past human settlements. Smells evoking important contextual associations, however, are an integral and idiosyncratic factor in human culture. Similarly to the sense of touch, as approached by the British phenomenologist Rodaway (1994), smells are directly related to the tactile receptivity of the body. Inherited olfactory information indicative of the individual’s own condition plays a major role in intraspecific communication. Moreover, a major body of acquired associations is related to smells in one’s immediate environment. They range from the comfortable fragrance of freshly baked bread to the obviously frightening stench of a badly neglected hospital and have, in part subconsciously, influenced human behaviour.

Click here to read this article from the European Journal of Archaeology

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