3-D printing helps resurrect an ancient Egyptian mummy’s voice

A replica of the mummy’s vocal tract reveals what the man may once have sounded like

Scientists used scans of a 3,000-year-old mummy (pictured) to make a 3-D printed model of its vocal tract. They’re using it to test what that mummy would have sounded like.

© Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries

3-D printing has revealed what a mummy might sound like if he rose from the dead. The voice belongs to an ancient Egyptian priest. Named Nesyamun, he lived about 3,000 years ago.

Scientists used CT scans to map the mummy’s vocal tract. This passage from the vocal cords to the mouth controls the unique sound of each person’s voice. When hooked up to a voice box in the lab, a 3-D printed mold of the vocal tract made a sound. It was somewhere between the vowels in “bed” and “bad.”

Researchers reported the findings January 23 in Scientific Reports

Electrical engineer David Howard is confident that the result is similar to what Nesyamun sounded like if he were able to speak today. “We’ve done this in the past for [living] humans,” he notes. The results were a good match between real and synthetic voices, he adds. Howard works at Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham, England. 

But Nesyamun’s undead groan doesn’t quite mimic his original voice. Tongues play an important role in shaping the vocal tract. Nesyamun’s tongue is dried up and flattened. The vocal re-creation is more like how this mummy would have sounded if he spoke while lying in his tomb, Howard says.

The plastic replica of the priest’s vocal tract cannot say full words. But a computer model of the vocal tract could be used to do that. It would pair the vocal tract with a simulation of a moving jaw and tongue.

Using ancient texts, scientists may one day simulate Nesyamun performing his priestly duties. Enabling him to speak from beyond the grave could improve museum exhibits.

Parts of the temple where Nesyamun worked were built for chanting and singing hymns, says study coauthor Joann Fletcher. She is an Egyptologist in England at the University of York. Taking Nesyamun’s voice back to where he used it might also help scientists better interpret that environment, Fletcher says.

Maria Temming is the staff reporter for physical sciences, covering everything from chemistry to computer science and cosmology. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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