Egyptian mummy speaks again… sort of

Thursday, 30 January, 2020

Egyptian mummy speaks again… sort of

The sound of a 3000-year-old mummified Egyptian priest, Nesyamun, has been accurately reproduced based on measurements of the precise dimensions of his extant vocal tract following computed tomography (CT) scanning. This enabled the creation of a 3D-printed vocal tract, known as the Vocal Tract Organ, which synthesised a sound that compares favourably with vowels of modern individuals.

The research has been published in the journal Springer Nature and the sound can be downloaded here, though bear in mind it might not be quite what you expect.

The project was begun back in 2013 when Professor David Howard from Royal Holloway, University of London, met with Professor John Schofield from the University of York.

Prof Howard 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 great order for us to be able to do this.”

Nesyamun lived during the 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, and it was his stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever.

Now mummified, Nesyamun was transported from Leeds City Museum to Leeds General Infirmary, where a CT scanner was used to check that a significant part of the structure of his larynx and throat remained. The precise dimensions of our vocal tracts make each of our voices unique, so the soft tissue of Nesyamun’s vocal tract had to be essentially intact.

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

The scan allowed the academics to measure the vocal tract shape; based on these measurements, they created a 3D-printed vocal tract for Nesyamun and used it with an artificial larynx sound that is commonly used in today’s speech synthesis systems.

“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 3000 years,” Prof Howard said.

Study co-author Professor Joann Fletcher, from the University of York, added, “Ultimately, this innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has given us the unique opportunity to hear the sound of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation combined with new developments in technology.

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

Top image courtesy of Leeds Museum and Galleries.

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