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Trending Science: Talk like an Egyptian: What a mummy sounds like

Scientists recreate the voice of a 3 000-year-old mummy.

Fundamental Research

The dead can’t talk yet, but they can at least make a sound. A study published in the British journal ‘Scientific Reports’ reveals what the voice of a mummified high-ranking Egyptian priest named Nesyamun would have sounded like. By 3D printing his vocal tract, a research team from the University of London, the University of York and Leeds City Museum accurately reproduced a single sound, resembling the “ah” and “eh” vowel sounds heard in the words “bad” and “bed.” A short clip of Nesyamun’s voice, which has been reproduced as a vowel-like sound, can be heard in the journal article.

Making the mummy speak

After 3 000 years, Nesyamun’s vocal tract was in excellent condition, but his tongue muscles were missing. The tongue is key to speech, changing the sounds we can make. “He certainly can’t speak at the moment,” lead author David Howard, a speech scientist at the University of London, told ‘The New York Times’. “But I think it’s perfectly plausible to suggest that one day it will be possible to produce words that are as close as we can make them to what he would have sounded like.” Dr Howard hopes to use the computer software to estimate features like the tongue’s size and movement and the jaw’s position. “You can take that to its natural conclusion,” said co-author Katherine Baxter, curator of archaeology at Leeds City Museum where Nesyamun is on display. “Could we make Nesyamun actually speak his original words as written on his coffin?” The researchers utilised a CT scanner to create a 3D-printed version of the mummy’s mouth and throat. They combined it with an electronic larynx to reconstruct “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life again,” explained Dr Howard. “The actual mummification process was key here,” said co-author Joann Fletcher, a professor of archaeology at the University of York. “The superb quality of preservation achieved by the ancient embalmers meant that Nesyamun’s vocal tract is still in excellent shape.”

Ancient voice will live on

As part of Nesyamun’s religious principles, he wished that his voice would be heard in perpetuity. “It’s actually written on his coffin - it was what he wanted,” co-author John Schofield, an archaeology professor at the University of York, told the ‘BBC’. “In a way, we’ve managed to make that wish come true.” It’s considered the first such initiative to effectively recreate a dead person’s voice via artificial means. The researchers aspire to employ computer models to reconstruct full sentences in Nesyamun’s voice. If you’re ever in Leeds, don’t forget to visit Nesyamun’s final resting place. He’s been captivating generations of visitors since his arrival there in 1823. Why not listen to his recreated voice while you do so? It’s what he would have wanted.


United Kingdom