The coffin that holds the mummified body of the ancient Egyptian Nesyamun, who lived around 1100 B.C., expresses the man’s desire for his voice to live on. Now, 3,000 years after his death, that wish has come true.
Using a 3D-printed replica of Nesyamun’s vocal tract and an electronic larynx, researchers in the UK have synthesized the dead man’s voice. The researchers described the feat today in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We’ve created sound for Nesyamun’s vocal tract exactly as it is positioned in his coffin,” says David Howard, head of the department of electrical engineering at Royal Holloway University of London, who coauthored the report. “We didn’t choose the sound. It is the sound the tract makes.”
So what does a 3,000-year-old dead guy sound like? In his mummified position, Nesyamun’s vocal tract makes a sustained vowel sound somewhere between the vowels in ‘bed’ and ‘bad.’ Yes, it’s weird. Take a listen:
The Synthesized Sound of an Egyptian Mummy's Voice
Researchers reconstructed the vocal tract of a mummy using CT scans and 3D printing
The sound is not likely one Nesyamun (pronounced “NEZ-ee-uh-moon”) would have made while living. “It is speech-like, but of course he’s not in the middle of an utterance” in his coffin, says Howard. “His neck is tilted backward, his tongue is on top of his lower teeth and is not as bulky as it would be, and no air is coming out. So this is not a speech-sound position.”
In replicating the mummy’s vocal tract, the researchers first took state-of-the-art CT scans of Nesyamun’s body. From the scans, the researchers created a digital model of the vocal tract using medical imaging modeling software, and then synthesized a physical model using 3D printing. In order to hear a sound from the 3D-printed tract, an input sound similar to that of a human larynx is needed. This was computer synthesized based on what is used in modern speech synthesis.
3D-printed vocal tract of the mummified body of Nesyamun.Photos: David Howard
The use of plastic for the 3D printed vocal tract, along with the electronic larynx, gives a buzzy quality to Nesyamun’s voice from the grave. But Howard says he is confident that the sound is true to the mummy.
As proof, Howard notes that he and his colleagues have made 3D-printed replicas of living men’s vocal tracts, and compared the sound to the men’s real voices. “We’ve done extensive work on 3D vocal tracts,” Howard says. “I can recreate my vocal tract and then you can hear it next to me and tell me if it’s similar or not, and the answer is: It is. We are using that fact to transpose this back 3,000 years and say we have something like Nesyamun would have sounded.”
Key to their success was the fact that Nesyamun’s soft tissue, aside from his tongue, is so well preserved by the mummification process. The vocal tract is dried up, of course, but that didn’t make much of a difference for the purposes of this project, Howard says.
Historians believe Nesyamun was an Egyptian priest who worked at the temple of Karnak in the ancient city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Nesyamun’s service dates to the reign of pharaoh Ramses XI, around 1100 B.C.
Inscriptions on Nesyamun’s coffin describe him as ‘maat kheru’ or ‘true of voice’ and ask that his soul be able to speak to his gods in his afterlife. “He had a desire that his voice would be everlasting,” says Howard. “In a sense you could argue we’ve heeded that call, which is a slightly strange thing, but there we are.”
Nesyamun’s daily duties as a priest likely involved chanting or singing. Phonetic transcriptions for exactly how this chanting would have sounded exist, Howard says, and as a next step, he would like to try to replicate the chanting by computationally manipulating the shape of Nesyamun’s vocal tract to make the different sounds. “My hope is to produce a few syllables and then build that up to a short phrase,” he says.
That would be a great feat, considering that no living person today has heard the sound of human speech prior to 1860, when the earliest audio recordings were made.
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.