Hear the Voice of a 3,0000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy: Scientists 3‑D Print His Throat & Mouth and Get Him to Speak … a Little

“The Mum­my Speaks!” announces The New York Times in Nicholas St. Fleur’s sto­ry about Nesya­mun, a mum­mi­fied Egypt­ian priest whose voice has been recre­at­ed, sort of, “with the aid of a 3‑D print­ed vocal tract” and an elec­tron­ic lar­ynx. Does the mum­my sound like the mon­ster of clas­sic 1930’s hor­ror? Sci­en­tists have only got as far as one syl­la­ble, “which resem­bles the ‘ah’ and ‘eh’ vow­els sounds heard in the words ‘bad’ and ‘bed.’ ” Yet it’s clear that Nesya­mun would not com­mu­ni­cate with gut­tur­al moans.

This may not make the recre­ation any less creepy. Nesya­mun, whose cof­fin is inscribed with the words “true of voice,” was charged with singing and chant­i­ng the litur­gies; “he had this wish,” says David Howard, speech sci­en­tist at Roy­al Hol­loway, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, “that his voice would some­how con­tin­ue into per­pe­tu­ity.” Howard and his team’s 3‑D print­ed recre­ation of his mouth and throat has allowed them to syn­the­size “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his cof­fin and his lar­ynx came to life again.”

Let’s imag­ine a dif­fer­ent sce­nario, shall we? One in which Nesya­mun speaks from the ancient past rather than from the sar­coph­a­gus. “Voice from the Past” is, indeed, what the researchers call their project, and they hope that it will even­tu­al­ly enable muse­um goers to “engage with the past in com­plete­ly new and inno­v­a­tive ways.”

If Nesya­mun could be made to speak again, St. Fleur writes, “per­haps the mum­my could recite for muse­um vis­i­tors his words to Nut, the ancient Egypt­ian god­dess of the sky and heav­ens: ‘O moth­er Nut, spread out your wings over my face so you may allow me to be like the stars-which-know-no-destruc­tion, like the stars-which-know-no-weari­ness, (and) not to die over again in the ceme­tery.”

Might we empathize? As Uni­ver­si­ty of York archae­ol­o­gist John Schofield puts it, “there is noth­ing more per­son­al than someone’s voice.” Hear­ing the mum­my speak would be “more mul­ti­di­men­sion­al” than only star­ing at his corpse. The nov­el­ty of this expe­ri­ence aside, one can imag­ine the knowl­edge his­to­ri­ans and lin­guists of ancient lan­guages might gath­er from this research. Oth­ers in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty have expressed their doubts. We may wish to tem­per our expec­ta­tions.

Piero Cosi, an Ital­ian speech sci­en­tist who helped recon­struct the voice of a mum­mi­fied ice­man named Ötzi in 2016 (speak­ing only in Ital­ian vow­els), points out the spec­u­la­tive nature of the sci­ence: “Even if we have the pre­cise 3‑D-geo­met­ric descrip­tion of the voice sys­tem of the mum­my, we would not be able to rebuild pre­cise­ly his orig­i­nal voice.” Egyp­tol­o­gist Kara Cooney notes the clear poten­tial for human bias­es to shape research that uses “so much infer­ence about what [ancient peo­ple] looked or sound­ed like.”

So, what might be the val­ue of approx­i­mat­ing Nesya­mun’s voice? In their paper, pub­lished in Nature Sci­en­tif­ic Reports, Howard and his co-authors explain, in lan­guage that sounds sus­pi­cious­ly like the kind that might invoke a clas­sic hor­ror movie mum­my’s curse:

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.’ 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.

Learn more about the Nesya­mun’s vocal recre­ation in the videos above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Did the Egyp­tians Make Mum­mies? An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Art of Mum­mi­fi­ca­tion

How to Make a Mum­my — Demon­strat­ed by The Get­ty Muse­um

What the Great Pyra­mid of Giza Would’ve Looked Like When First Built: It Was Gleam­ing, Reflec­tive White

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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