All  
Sarcophagus of Nesyamun, source of the Mummy’s voice      Source: © Leeds Museums and Galleries

3,000 Year-Old Egyptian Mummy Speaks From The Afterlife

Print

The vowel sounds of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy have been recreated by scientists in England.

A multidisciplinary team of scientists in Leeds, England have used a broad suite of technologies to recreate the vocal sounds of the famous 3,000 year-old mummified Egyptian priest Nesyamun. This scribe and priest, at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes (modern Luxor), worked during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses XI (c.1099–1069 BC) and in 1823, when his mummy first arrived in Leeds, he was immediately recognized as one of the most important  mummies in Britain.

Egyptian Mummy’s Voice Synthesized From the Past

Following the unwrapping of Nesyamun’s body in 1824 his mummified remains have been on display in Leeds City Museum , but now, according to a new research paper published in the journal Nature, his vocal tract has been “synthesized” allowing people to engage with the past in what the researchers call “completely new and innovative ways”.

The 3,000 year-old coffin of Nesyamun, on display at Leeds City Museum. (© Leeds Museums and Galleries)

The 3,000 year-old coffin of Nesyamun, on display at Leeds City Museum. (© Leeds Museums and Galleries )

The ‘ Voices from the Past ’ project claims that when ancient remains are sufficiently well-preserved, that is, when the relevant soft tissue is reasonably intact, a synthesized vowel sound can be reproduced based on the precise dimensions of vocal tracts, and this was how the 3,000 year-old mummified body of the Egyptian priest Nesyamun was made to speak.

Be Very Careful What You Wish For

Within archaeology human remains are not treated like other ‘objects’ and the researchers had to first consider the ethical issues raised by their planned research. However, they quickly concluded that their scientific techniques were non-destructive and that the potential benefits outweighed the concerns, and in their own defense, in the paper, they point out that in “Nesyamun s own words he expressed his desire to speak again”.

Talking to the BBC, co-author Professor Joann Fletcher, a professor of archaeology at the University of York said, “written on his [Nesyamun’s] coffin,” was his express wish to be heard in the afterlife which was part of his religious belief system , and “we’ve managed to make that wish come true,” said Professor Fletcher.

Nesyamun’s name in hieroglyphs as shown in his coffin inscriptions. (Scientific Reports)

Nesyamun’s name in hieroglyphs as shown in his coffin inscriptions. ( Scientific Reports )

A Clear Ancient Voice Will Excite and Inspire

Previous attempts at recreating ancient voices required complex software to reanimate facial movements, which after a lot of guessing, yielded only approximations of people’s original voices. However, the accuracy achieved in Nesyamun’s voice, after a three millennia of silence, means museum visitors will be able to  hear a sound from the mummy’s vocal tract, which the scientists think will add to “his humanity” with the potential to “excite and inspire” museum visitors.

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

This all began in September 2016 when Nesyamun s mummified body was transferred from Leeds City Museum to the nearby Computed Tomography (CT) Scanning Department at Leeds General Infirmary. There, a robot called ITK-SNAP created three-dimensional structural representations of the airway between the mummy’s larynx and lips, which in turn, enabled the creation of Nesyamun’s “ 3D-printed tract”. The ancient priest’s voice was then generated by a method used in modern speech synthesis systems called “artificial larynx sound” where single words are formed into sentences,” said Professor Fletcher.

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. (Scientific Reports)

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. ( Scientific Reports )

Hear the 3,000 Year-Old Priest for Yourself

If you want to hear what Nesyamun sounded like then you can listen to an audio file on this Science Mag article, or watch the video below. But be warned, it doesn’t sound like much. Remember, these are only baby steps in a new technology that will eventually recreate a new sound-scape of ancient voices. Ultimately, the researchers are aiming to recreate a version of what Nesyamun would have said at the temple at Karnak where he was a ‘ waab priest’, which according to an article in Live Science meant he had reached a certain level of purification and was therefore granted access to the inner most sacred sanctum of the temple, where he would have worshiped the statue of Amun.

 

A Scientific American article says the researchers think that approximating a long-dead voice, even with an admittedly imperfect simulation, could help museums make history more accessible. This is further illustrated by Dr. John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York in England, who said museum visitors usually only encounter the past visually”, but with this new voice recreation technology, the encounter with history can be “more multidimensional”.

Top image: Sarcophagus of Nesyamun, source of the Mummy’s voice      Source: © Leeds Museums and Galleries

By Ashley Cowie

Next article