Sound of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy’s voice recreated thanks to 3D printing
A team of archaeologists and engineers have fulfilled an Egyptian priest's 'desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever'.
The sound of the speaking voice of Nesyamun, and Egyptian priest who died 3,000 years ago, has been reproduced by researchers who produced a 3D-printed a to-scale model of his vocal tract.
The work was carried out by Professor David Howard, from the Department of Engineering at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Professor John Schofield, Professor Joann Fletcher and Dr Stephen Buckley from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and has been five years in the making.
First, the team produced a detailed 3D image of the throat and larynx of Nesyamun’s mummified remains, which they had borrowed from Leeds Museum, using a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary. They found that the overriding structure and soft tissue in his throat was incredibly well preserved.
This allowed them to create a highly accurate copy of Nesyamen’s vocal tract using a 3D printer. They then hooked the printed vocal tract up to an artificial voice box that is commonly used in modern speech synthesis systems to hear what Nesyamun would’ve sounded like.
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“The voice is such a significant part of being human, and every voice is distinctive,” said Prof Schofield. “As an archaeologist, the opportunity of recreating a voice from the past with greater accuracy than has even been done before was an exciting and unexpected prospect.
"From a heritage experience point of view, the opportunities are immense - to not only look at ancient archaeological remains in a museum or on the ground, for example in Leeds Museum where Nesyamun is displayed or at Karnak in Egypt where he worked as a priest, but to hear the sound of a voice from that period.”
Nesyamun lived during the politically volatile reign of pharaoh Ramses XI (c.1099–1069 BC) more than 3,000 years ago, working as a scribe and priest at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes - modern-day Luxor. His voice would have been an essential part of his ritual duties which involved spoken as well as sung elements, the team say.
“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 3,000 years,” said Prof Howard.
“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’,” said Prof Fletcher.
“So 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 recreation of his voice allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a voice that has not been heard for over 3,000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this pioneering new technique."
The research as been met with some criticism. On Twitter, critics argue that reincarnating the long-dead mummies voice crosses an ethical line. The Museum have responded concerns by directing readers to the ethics portion of their paper.
“LMG’s Human Remains Working Group discussed the risks, benefits and ethics of the current scientific study of Nesyamun at all stages of the project, concluding that the potential benefits outweighed the concerns, particularly because the scientific techniques used were non-destructive.”
Speaking for the ages
This is not the first time voices have been brought back from the dead. Here are some previous projects:
As easy as ONE! TWO! THREE!
As part of the 2005 BBC documentary Neanderthal: The Rebirth, a group of researchers studied Neanderthal anatomy in an attempt to recreate what they may have sounded like.
They speculated that their shorter throats would have made their voices higher in pitch, their enlarged nasal cavities would have made their voices more ‘nasal’ in tone, and their deep rib cages wold have given them some serious projecting power. Apparently this all adds up to them sounding something like Mr Punch on steroids. Terrifying.
Here’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s voice coach Patsy Rodenburg and actor Eliot Shrimpton with a demo:
The Iceman speaketh
A similar project was carried out by scientists from Bolzano's General Hospital in Italy of the remains of Ötzi the Iceman in 2016. The roughly 3000-year-old naturally mummified remains of Ötzi were found in the Ötzal Alps in northern Italy in 1991. By using CT scans to measure the structure of Ötzi‘s vocal cords, throat, and mouth, the team were able to digitally reconstruct what he might have sounded like. The result is deep, raspy, and just a little scary.
To say ‘err’ is human…
Also in 2016, a group of researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge developed a method of moving back down the family tree of modern human language to create an approximation of what the Proto-Indian-European mother tongue might have sounded like when it was spoken by our ancestors 8,000 years ago.
The team compared modern and archival audio recordings using some nifty maths to travel back in time down the evolutionary tree of language.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.