Voice of 3,000-year-old Egyptian priest heard again thanks to 3D printing

24 Jan 2020

The ancient Egyptian priest Nesyamun in his sarcophagus. Image: Leeds Museum and Galleries/PA

Researchers have fulfilled the wishes of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian priest by allowing him to speak once more.

He may have lay silent for 3,000 years, but now the voice of a mummified Egyptian priest can be heard once again. The sound of Nesyamun has been reproduced as a vowel-like sound that loosely resembles a protracted sheep’s bleat.

The priest lived during the politically volatile reign of pharaoh Ramses XI  (circa 1099 to 1069BCE), working as a scribe and priest at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes – modern Luxor.

His voice was an essential part of his ritual duties, which involved spoken as well as sung elements. Now, research by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, University of York and Leeds Museum has shed light on what Nesyamun sounded like.

Allowing the dead to speak

Using measurements of the precise dimensions of his extant vocal tract following a CT scan, they created a 3D-printed vocal tract, known as the vocal tract organ. By using the vocal tract organ with an artificial larynx sound that is commonly used in today’s speech synthesis systems, they synthesised the vowel sound.

The team used a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary to check to see if the significant part of the structure of the larynx and throat of Nesyamun, brought from nearby Leeds Museum, remained intact.

Scientists said the interdisciplinary collaboration has produced the unique opportunity to hear the vocal tract output of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation and new developments in technology. They added that Nesyamun stated a desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever.

The mummy being put into a CT scanner.

The Nesyamun mummy in the CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary. Image: Leeds Museum and Galleries/PA

The fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows direct contact to be made with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique.

Prof David Howard from Royal Holloway said: “I was demonstrating the vocal tract organ in June 2013 to colleagues, with implications for providing authentic vocal sounds back to those who have lost the normal speech function of their vocal tract or larynx following an accident or surgery for laryngeal cancer.

“I was then approached by Prof John Schofield who began to think about the archaeological and heritage opportunities of this new development. Hence finding Nesyamun and discovering his vocal tract and soft tissues were in great order for us to be able to do this.”

Helps the living, too

Prof Joann Fletcher, of the department of archaeology at the University of York, added: “Ultimately, this innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has given us the unique opportunity to hear the sound of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation combined with new developments in technology.

“And 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’.”

Prof Howard, from the department of electronic engineering at Royal Holloway, and Prof Schofield, Prof Fletcher and Dr Stephen Buckley, all from the department of archaeology at the University of York, started the project in 2013.

The research is published in the Scientific Reports journal.

– PA Media