A replica of a 3,000-year-old mummy’s vocal tract has revealed how that mummy might sound if he rose from the dead.
Using CT scans of the mummified Egyptian priest Nesyamun (SN: 8/18/14), researchers mapped the exact shape of the mummy’s vocal tract — which governs the unique sound of a person’s voice. When connected to an artificial voice box, a 3-D printed mold of the mummy’s vocal tract produces a sound somewhere between the vowels in “bed” and “bad,” researchers report January 23 in Scientific Reports.
“We are confident that the sound we are hearing is the sound that belongs to this vocal tract … because we’ve done this in the past for [living] humans” and gotten good matches between real and synthetic voices, says David Howard, an electronic engineer at Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham.
A replica of an Egyptian mummy’s vocal tract, hooked up to an artificial voice box tuned to the pitch of an adult man, produces a noise that sounds like a cross between the vowels in “bad” and “bed.” This kind of vocal re-creation “allows us to see ancient Egyptian mummified bodies as people” rather than “just objects in a case,” says Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at the University of York in England.
Image: © Leeds Museums and Galleries; Audio: D.M. Howard et al/Scientific Reports 2020
But Nesyamun’s undead utterance doesn’t quite mimic his original voice, because the mummy’s tongue, which affects the shape of the vocal tract, is dried up and flattened out. Rather, “we’ve created the sound that he would make if he was to speak as he currently lies in his sarcophagus,” Howard says.
The plastic mold of the priest’s vocal tract cannot say full words, but using a computer simulation of the vocal tract with a jaw and tongue that move, “we could make him speak,” Howard says. Using inscriptions in the mummy’s tomb and other ancient religious texts, the researchers may someday render vocal recordings of Nesyamun’s own prayers and the daily liturgy that he would have performed in his duties as a priest.
Enabling Nesyamun to speak from beyond the grave could create more immersive museum exhibitions and provide insights into ancient architecture. “It’s quite clear that various parts of the Karnak Temple [where Nesyamun worked] were built in ancient times to have a certain acoustic quality” for chants and hymns, says study coauthor Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at the University of York in England. Taking Nesyamun’s voice “back into the place where he was using his voice does help us better interpret that environment.”