The Mummy Speaks — With Help From a 3D-Printed Voice Box

(CN) – A priest’s voice can call out from ancient Egypt thanks to the help of a 3-D printer, a group of researchers and an electronic voice box.

Upper part of the inner coffin lid of Nesyamun. (© Leeds Museums and Galleries)

The Egyptian priest Nesyamun died over 3,000 years ago and was mummified at the temple complex referred to as Karnak in Thebes, now Luxor, in Egypt. Nesyamun was an incense-bearer and scribe who lived during the reign of Ramses XI at the temple complex.

Thousands of years later, he is the subject of a research project focused on his throat.

His voice would have been lost to the ages if it were not for a group of researchers who created an artificial vocal tract that allows for an accurate reproduction of a vowel-like sound. Their findings are detailed in the journal Scientific Reports published Thursday.

The recreation of a precise vocal tract required CT scans of Nesyamun’s larynx. Fortunately, soft tissue of the project’s participant remained intact. Nesyamun’s “in death” vocal tract provided an acoustic output for the team, who used an electronic larynx – the VocalTract Organ – to reproduce the formation of the tract, which allowed for the single note to be produced.

The sound is music to the ears of future researchers who can one day utilize the data.

Nesyamun’s preservation has made him popular among researchers over the years, with the unwrapping of his body in 1824, radiological examination in 1931, research by a school of dentistry in 1964 and X-ray and early CT scanning techniques in the 1990s, according to the study authors.

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. (D. Howard / Scientific Reports)

The priest is thought to have died in his mid-50s, suffered from gum disease and severely worn teeth. His coffin bears the epithet “true of voice” because he would have verbally confirmed he led a virtuous life. Researchers took this inscription as a sign that he would have welcomed the ability to speak after his death.

Researchers considered the ethical question of studying this once living priest as part of the research project, but the study authors write, “The team concluded that the potential benefits outweighed the concerns, particularly because Nesyamun’s own words express his desire to ‘speak again’ and that the scientific techniques used were non-destructive.”

In 2016, Nesyamun was transferred from Leeds City Museum to a facility where he could be properly scanned – after he was removed from his coffin. The CT scans showed Nesyamun’s larynx and throat were in good condition, but his tongue had lost its shape and the soft palate was gone. Meanwhile, a 3D-printed tract provided researchers the ability to create a waveform brought out from the overlaid dimensions of his vocal tract.

Electronic engineering professor David Howard from the Royal Holloway, University of London says initially he and archaeology professor John Schofield from the University of York discussed using the artificial larynx process on a bogman – a body preserved in a peat bog.

“We never managed to get near a bogman but met the team from Leeds Museum who offered Nesyamun,” Howard said in an email. “That was around four years ago, and the rest is history.”

As a priest, Nesyamun likely sang and repeated daily prayers, according to the study authors. That all went into formulating how his voice would sound.

The word the researchers ultimately produced was a single sound, resting between the vowels in the English words for “bed and “bad.”

The implications for the “Voice from the Past” project could open the airways of other ancient individuals.

The research team included electronic engineering professor David Howard from the Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-authors from the University of York’s archaeology department, Leeds Museums, and the Institute for Prehistory at the University of Tübingen (Germany).

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