Sound of a mummy heard again for the first time in 3,000 years

The sound of a mummified priest has been heard for the first time in 3,000 years, thanks to ingenious research by a team of academics.

The Egyptian Nesyamun lived during the politically volatile reign of pharaoh Ramses XI over 3000 years ago, working as a scribe and priest at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes (modern Luxor). His voice was an essential part of his ritual duties, which involved spoken as well as sung elements.

Nesyamun had a desire to speak after his death, combined with the great state of his mummified body. This made Nesyamun the ideal subject for the ‘Voices from the Past’ project for which his body was re-examined using state-of-the-art CT scanning equipment.

With his mummified remains now displayed in Leeds City Museum, the current project is only the most recent to examine Nesyamun.

Following Computed Tomography (CT) scanning, scientists from the University of York have accurately reproduced the sound of an Egyptian priest, Nesyamun, as a vowel-like sound based on measurements of the precise dimensions of his extant vocal tract.

The mummified body of Nesyamun laid on the couch to be CT scanned at Leeds General Infirmary. © Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries.
The mummified body of Nesyamun laid on the couch to be CT scanned at Leeds General Infirmary. © Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Scientists used the Vocal Tract Organ to synthesize a vowel sound. In the end, scientists come up with a 3-D printed vocal tract.

Professor David Howard, from the Department of Engineering at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Professor John Schofield, Professor Joann Fletcher, and Dr. Stephen Buckley, all from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, started the project in 2013.

Using a CT scanner, scientists observed if the significant part of the structure of the larynx and throat of Nesyamun, brought from nearby Leeds Museum, remained intact.

The mummified body of Nesyamun laid on the couch to be CT scanned at Leeds General Infirmary. © Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries.
The mummified body of Nesyamun laid on the couch to be CT scanned at Leeds General Infirmary. © Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries.

The output permitted the scholastics to measure the vocal tract shape from CT images, and based on these estimations, they created a 3D-printed vocal tract for Nesyamun and used it with an artificial larynx sound that is usually utilized in the today’s speech synthesis systems.

Professor David Howard from Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “I was demonstrating the Vocal Tract Organ in June 2013 to colleagues, with implications for providing authentic vocal sounds back to those who have lost the normal speech function of their vocal tract or larynx following an accident or surgery for laryngeal cancer.

“I was then approached by Professor John Schofield, who began to think about the archaeological and heritage opportunities of this new development. Hence finding Nesyamun and discovering his vocal tract and soft tissues were in excellent order for us to be able to do this.”

Final segmentation view (upper) and sagittal section of the two halves of 3-D printed Nesyamun’s vocal tract (lower). The lack of tongue muscular bulk and soft palate is clear.
Final segmentation view (upper) and sagittal section of the two halves of 3-D printed Nesyamun’s vocal tract (lower). The lack of tongue muscular bulk and soft palate is clear.

“It has been such an interesting project that has opened a novel window onto the past, and we’re very excited to be able to share the sound with people for the first time in 3,000 years.”

Professor Joann Fletcher, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “Ultimately, this innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has given us the unique opportunity to hear the sound of someone long dead by their soft tissue preservation combined with new developments in technology.”

Sound from the voice of an ancient Egyptian priest

“And while this has broad implications for both healthcare and museum display, its relevance conforms precisely to the ancient Egyptians’ fundamental belief that ‘to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.”

“So given Nesyamun’s stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife to live forever, the fulfillment of his beliefs through the recreation of his voice allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a voice that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this pioneering new technique.”

The research is published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

See stories of the future in your inbox every morning.

MUST READ