Scientists have reproduced the voice of a ancient Egyptian priest by creating a 3D printed replica of his mummified vocal tract.
David Howard at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his colleagues reconstructed the vocal tracts of Nesyamun, a priest who lived over 3000 years ago during the reign of pharaoh Ramses XI.
The incredible project started in 2013 and combines the expertise of clinical science, archeology, Egyptology, museum conservation and electrical engineering.
Over six years, the team worked hard to scientifically recreate the voice of Nesyamun. The system can so far only produce a single sound, a vowel between “a” and “e”. The findings are published in Scientific Reports.
They have used the reconstruction to reproduce a sound that falls between the English vowel sounds in “bed” and “bad”, and resembles a brief groan.
The mummy, held at Leeds City Museum, is one of the best preserved in the UK, says Howard.
The team used CT scans to image the mummy’s vocal tract, measuring the position of the airway, bone and soft tissue structures.
The vocal tract – which in humans consists of the laryngeal cavity, the pharynx, and the oral and nasal cavities – was then digitally recreated. Finally, the resulting model was 3D printed and used with an electronic larynx that generates sound.
“This process allows the sound of his tract as he is in his sarcophagus, which is a sound that his vocal tract can make – so it is his voice,”- David Howard.
“When it comes to any thoughts of producing running speech, things are different but there are possibilities. Combining knowledge of phonetics and linguistics with speech science means that we could use it to anticipate typical articulatory gestures that he would have used to change his vocal tract shape and therefore do this in software and create running speech. So that is an idea – there is a load of work to do to get anywhere near this but it is a distinct possibility for the future.”
“While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/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’,” they wrote in a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports. “Given Nesyamun’s stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique.”
It may be possible to generate a variety of speech sounds by changing the shape of the recreated vocal tract, says Howard.