Science & Technology

The Mummy Returns? Science recreates a voice from beyond the grave

The mummified body of Nesyamun laid on the couch to be CT scanned at Leeds General Infirmary. © Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries.
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Researchers have recreated the vocal tract of a 3000-year-old mummy, allowing the long-dead priest to speak again.

It may sound like the plot of a 1970s Hammer horror picture, but Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are markedly absent in this tale of how scientists from the UK and Germany recreated the voice of a long-dead Egyptian Priest called Nesyamun.

The team used Computed Tomography (CT) scans and 3D printing alongside an electronic larynx to recreate the sound produced by the vocal tract of Nesyamun, who died and was mummified 3,000 years ago. Of course, it isn’t possible for the team to produce anything intelligible, and the sound they have produced can barely be described as speech at all, the output is a single sound.

The precise dimensions of an individual’s vocal tract produce a unique sound. If the dimensions of a vocal tract can be established, vocal sounds can be synthesized by using a 3D-printed vocal tract and an electronic larynx. For this to be feasible, the soft tissue of the vocal tract needs to be reasonably intact.

David Howard, John Schofield and colleagues used non-destructive CT to confirm that a significant part of the structure of the larynx and throat of the 3,000-year-old mummified body of the Egyptian priest Nesyamun remained intact as a result of the mummification process. This allowed the authors to measure the vocal tract shape from CT images. Based on these measurements, the authors created a 3D-printed vocal tract for Nesyamun and used it with an artificial larynx commonly used in speech synthesis. They were able to reproduce a single sound, falling between the vowels in the English words ‘bed’ and ‘bad’.

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.

The team were extremely aware that they were dealing not with an object, but with the remains of a human being, so were careful that they considered the ethical and possible heritage outcomes of their study. “The team concluded that the potential benefits outweighed the concerns, particularly because Nesyamun’s own words express his desire to ‘speak again’ and that the scientific techniques used were non-destructive,” their paper explains.

This is not the first attempt to recreate the voice of a person long deceased, but previous attempts have used software to recreate and animate facial features to give an approximation of the original voice.

“Recordings do exist of individuals with extraordinary voices who died soon after the introduction of sound recording–such as the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi,” the team say. “But here is offered a vocal recreation that is based on an extant vocal tract preserved over three millennia.”

The Pyramids of Giza (Richard Liberato)

During Nesymun’s life, his duties would have involved speaking, chanting and singing the daily liturgy, so the team explain that his vocal tract would have been used to provide a falling intonation in the male speech fundamental frequency range. 

“As a rare witness to a cataclysmic period in Egypt’s ancient history, Nesyamun also has a pre-eminent place in the history of Egyptology,” the team say in their paper. “His body and coffin have been on permanent display in Leeds Museum for almost two centuries, and although few visitors can read his coffin’s hieroglyphic texts for themselves, the possibility of transmitting their vocalisation would not only fulfil Nesyamun’s own wishes as he himself expressed, but make them accessible to all.”

Aside from the fascinating archaeological impact of the study, the authors suggest that their proof-of-concept recreation of a vocal tract preserved over three millennia has implications for the way in which the past is presented to the public in the present. Possibly providing an opportunity to hear the vocal tract output of an individual that lived in ancient times.

Original research:

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



Robert is a member of the Association of British Science Writers and the Institute of Physics, qualified in Physics, Mathematics and Contemporary science. He contributes articles on topics as diverse as quantum physics, cosmology, medical science and the environment at Scisco media.

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