Saturday, October 03, 2015

Review of Bradley, Smell and the Ancient Senses

Mark Bradley (ed.), Smell and the Ancient Senses. The senses in antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xii, 210. ISBN 9781844656424. $39.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Stuart Eve, University College London/L – P : Archaeology (


Mark Bradley opens this collected volume of 13 essays by stating: “one of the most interesting things about smell is its very transitoriness and elision from the record, as well as its ambiguities and complexities” (p. 2-3). This sentence sums up the book as a whole and sets the stage well for what can be considered an excellent collection of work on smell in the ancient world.


The breadth of the different contributions means there is not room to discuss each one individually, but each certainly contributes something useful to the volume and as a whole they give a good overview of the current (and varied) thinking on the subject. The early chapters present excellent discussions of smell for both medical diagnosis and prognosis, along with a discussion of which herbs and trees may have been experienced and exploited for their smelly qualities. In some cases it seems as if the authors are perhaps 'tacking on' a discussion of smell to some of their previous research – this is particularly true of Koloski-Ostrow (with her focus on sewerage systems) and Potter (on Roman dining) – but the contributions don't necessarily suffer for this and indeed it can be taken as evidence of how pervasive the study of smell should be.

The choice of the contributions means interesting juxtapositions are sometimes presented, with Butler's exploration of the poetical creation of the sweet-smelling 'scent of a woman' being set against Bradley's discussion of the foul smells of the body. The chapters on the role of scent and smell in religious contexts, (Clements [on Greek ritual], Green [on smell in Rabbinic Jewish ritual], and Toner [on smell in Christianity]) work together very well to present three different ways in which smell can be used to appease or attract the gods. The exploration of the role of incense throughout these three chapters aptly demonstrates both the ethereal nature of smell, but also its politicisation to achieve one's own aims.3 As Clements says, “odour emerges as an experience of divinity, and divinity, in turn, as an experience of odour” (p. 59).