Captive to smell

The rise of Çatalhöyük is one of my favorite topics to cover in the Introduction to Anthropology course. Located in central Turkey, the proto-urban settlement was occupied for more than a millennium, starting about 9000 years ago. At any given time during Çatalhöyük’s existence, between 3,000 and 8,000 people lived in what is one of the oldest known “towns” in the world. Çatalhöyük had no streets, alleys, or sidewalks. Windowless houses and goat pens were huddled together in clusters interrupted only here and there by middens full of refuse material. A house’s rooftop opening served as entrance, source of light, and chimney. The dead were buried under the house floor (Hodder 2006).

In class discussions about the archeological reconstruction of Çatalhöyük, I ask my students to imagine what the olfactory experience of living in this town may have been. With middens full of fecal remains, household compost, and various rotting organic materials, with sheep and goats cooped near or inside the houses, with decomposing cadavers under dirt floors, everyday life must have been terribly foul-smelling. Lacking evidence of social stratification, Çatalhöyük residents were presumably equally subjected to the smells of the town. There are several compelling explanations for what drove humans to become sedentary in the aftermath of the Epi-Paleolithic. Yet, I have to say that, from an olfactory perspective, the fact that they gradually abandoned foraging only to settle down in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and stenchy settlements remains quite perplexing.

Fast forward to contemporary mega-cities, we must pause for a moment in 19th century London. There, millions lived in a city whose streets, without a sewage system, were covered in human and animal excrement, vomit, decomposing rats and birds, and other rotten organic material. Eyes closed and nostrils wide open, London may have resembled Çatalhöyük multiplied by a factor of three hundred. No wonder that cholera was believed to be caused by miasma – the pestilential fog hanging over the city. Today, in a mega-metropolis, myriads of diverse smells are unevenly distributed across neighborhoods. In 2019, two Indian sociologists, Ishita Dey and Mohammed Sayeed curated the exhibition Smell Assembly in New Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. The show was based on findings from a sensory ethnography project aimed at mapping Delhi’s “scents, stench and stink.” Beyond representing odors, Dey and Sayeed were interested in the power of smell to reveal social relations.

Inspired by Dey and Sayeed’s research, I wonder about the ways in which one’s ability to discipline, control, modulate or escape certain smells defines class, race, power, and privilege. One instance that comes to mind is the emergence of European orangeries. Starting in the 16th century, groves of orange and lemon trees became fashionable among the European ruling classes. By the 1520s, “Francois the First already had an orange garden at Fontainebleau, some of the stock brought from India by the Portuguese” (Woods and Swartz Warren 1988). Inspired by Friedrich the Fifth and his famous orange house in the Heidelberg gardens, in 1609, James the First planned to include an orangery in Somerset House renovations. Queen Anne also reportedly enjoyed the fragrant ambient of the great orangery at Kensington Palace, for winter exercise and summer suppers (Woods and Swartz Warren 1988, Hind 1988). Beyond the aesthetic fascination with exotic and colorful fruits, the ruling classes’ interest in orange trees also served a very practical and prosaic purpose. With hundreds of domestic servants defecating everywhere, the scented blossom of the orange groves and green houses would cover and confine the pestilential smells of the nicely manicured gardens. Certainly, there are many contemporary examples of how power and privilege intersect with the capacity to control and escape one own’s and others’ unpleasant smells.

Yet, there is a place where even the powerful suspend their ability to control disgusting odors. In the hospital, we are all equally captive to smell. Suffering and death, but also being subjected to the hospital smell render us all equal. When I ask people about the hospital smell, everybody knows what I am talking about, but few can describe it. Prompted to qualify the hospital smell as “good” or “bad,” people are ambivalent. The odor of disinfectant is supposed to convey freshness and cleanliness, but the emotional association with the often-unpleasant experience of the sickbay makes the smell a rather dreaded one. The hospital amplifies the power of the smell to connect sense and emotion.

Kate McLean, Hospital Corridor Smellscape (source: Reproduced with permission.

The hospital smell does not consist of just one generic antiseptic fragrance. A constellation of scents, from faint to intense, from elusive to persistent, come together as a “smellscape” that can even be mapped. Furthermore, the hospital smellscape itself is continuously shifting over time, reflecting the advances in medico-scientific knowledge and technology, but also the historical transformations in our olfactory sensibility. By the mid-19th century, the hospital smellscape increasingly included pungent-smelling antiseptics such as phenol, zinc chloride solutions, and iodoform. But covering the stench of disease – particularly that of some malignant tumors – would end up retraining doctors’ noses and undermining smell as a tool for clinical diagnostics (Hitzer 2020). Along with patients, doctors and other healthcare workers are bound to navigate the hospital smellscape. Medical students get gradually accustomed to the “omnipresent smell of antiseptic” that cannot completely cover the other scents that linger in the hospital: “melena – black, tarry feces containing partly digested blood […], the fruity breath of a patient with diabetic ketoacidosis, the musty aroma of fetor hepaticus from a patient with a failing liver, the Fritos corn chip smell of bone dust, and the burnt cuttlefish fragrance of cauterized fat” (Kim 2019).

And then, there is the dental office. Here, olfactory-induced emotions branch off into almost synesthetic perceptions associating the sensation of having your jaw drilled with the pungent odor of eugenol, and the smell of tooth dust, amalgams, and resin composites. Interestingly, from all possible smells, citrus scents – and particularly the odor of orange – have been repeatedly tested by researchers for their role in presumably lowering “dental anxiety.” The results are rather inconclusive (Toet et al. 2010). (With readers presumably disgusted enough by now, I will refrain from contemplating the smellscape of what some consider to be the ultimate bastion of dreaded smells – the nursing home).

If shifting from foraging to farming introduced humans to radically new smellscapes, class and privilege often involve the ability to control and escape unpleasant odors. But in the hospital, one is once again held captive to smell. In the end, loss of smell – a frequent symptom of SARS-CoV-2 infection, mostly likely caused by damage to the cells that support and assist the olfactory neurons – may in fact be a temporary blessing.

Cristina A. Pop is an assistant professor of medical anthropology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She has published her research in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Medical Anthropology, Journal of Religion and Health, and Culture, Health and Sexuality. Cristina is also the author of The Cancer Within: Reproduction, Cultural Transformation, and Health Care in Romania, forthcoming May 2022 from Rutgers University Press.


Hind, Charles. 1988. Review: Glass Houses. A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories by Mary Woods and Arete Swartz Warren [sic!]. Garden History 16(2): 202-204.

Hitzer, Bettina. 2020. The Odor of Disgust: Contemplating the Dark Side of 20th Century Cancer History. Emotion Review 12(3): 156-167.

Hodder, Ian. 2006. The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük. Thames and Hudson.

Kim, Yoo Jung. 2019. Scents and Memories at the Hospital, Last accessed September 12, 2021.

Toet, Alexander, Smeets, A.M. Monique, van Dijk, Elly, Dijkstra, Davina and Lieke van den Reijen. 2010. Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrances on Dental Fear: Comparing Apples and Oranges. Chemosensory Perception 3:182-189.

Woods, May and Arte Swartz Warren. 1988. Glass Houses: A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories. Rizzoli.