A 3-D printed vocal tract lets an ancient mummy speak from beyond the grave

The replica reveals what the ancient Egyptian’s voice might have sounded like

mummy in CT scanner

By taking a CT scan of the vocal tract of a 3,000-year-old mummy (pictured), researchers have 3-D printed a model of the vocal tract that can make sounds.

© Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.

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.

Nesyamun mummy coffin
Using a computer simulation of the mummy Nesyamun’s vocal tract, researchers may someday render recordings of his voice speaking the prayers inscribed in his tomb (upper part of inner coffin lid shown).© Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.” 

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology