You Can Now Listen To The Voice Of A 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy

Nesyamun about to be studied with a CT scan. Howard et al. 2020/Scientific Reports

The dead speak! A team of researchers from the UK has managed to reconstruct the vocal tract of an Egyptian mummy using a combination of CT scans, 3D printing, and an electronic larynx. The incredible project began in 2013 and combines expertise from clinical science, archaeology, Egyptology, museum curation, and electrical engineering.

Over six years, the team worked hard to scientifically recreate the voice of Nesyamun, a 3,000-year-old ancient Egyptian. The system can so far only produce a single sound, a vowel between “a” and “e”. The findings are published in Scientific Reports.

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The feat was possible thanks to how well the larynx and throat of Nesyamun’s mummified body have been preserved. The CT scans allowed the team to reconstruct his vocal tract, which was then recreated using a 3D printer. The artificial vocal tract can now produce a sound, a first step to attempting to reconstruct the ancient Egyptian’s voice.

“This process allows the sound of his tract as he is in his sarcophagus, which is a sound that his vocal tract can make – so it is his voice,” lead author Professor David Howard, of Royal Holloway, University of London, told IFLScience.

“When it comes to any thoughts of producing running speech, things are different but there are possibilities. Combining knowledge of phonetics and linguistics with speech science means that we could use it to anticipate typical articulatory gestures that he would have used to change his vocal tract shape and therefore do this in software and create running speech. So that is an idea – there is a load of work to do to get anywhere near this but it is a distinct possibility for the future.”

The 3D-printed vocal tract. Howard et al. 2020/Scientific Reports

Scientists have previously attempted to recreate the voices of ancient individuals using facial recognition software to create an approximation of the sounds they would have produced. The new research is a first, and it is all down to how well the mummy’s vocal tract was preserved.

Nesyamun’s name means “True of Voice”, a coincidence that tickled the researchers. Placed in a finely decorated coffin, he was a priest, incense-bearer, and scribe at the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak and he died around the year 1100 BCE. The mummy is one of the most studied in Britain and this work is part of the Voice of the Past project.

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