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Making the Mummy Speak -- Or at Least Make a Sound
  • Posted January 24, 2020

Making the Mummy Speak -- Or at Least Make a Sound

Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest who chanted hymns at the grand temple of Karnak in Thebes 3,000 years ago, has been allowed to speak once more.

Well, maybe not speak in full sentences: A British team has re-created the mummified Nesyamun's throat using 3-D technology, allowing it to utter a vowel they believe mimics how the priest sounded.

Here it is:

As described Jan. 23 in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers led by speech scientist David Howard, of the University of London, used CT scans to confirm that the soft tissue in the mummy's throat area was still intact.

"The precise dimensions of an individual's vocal tract produce a sound unique to them," the researchers explained, and "if the tract dimensions can be scientifically established, vocal sounds can be synthesized."

That's what the British team has attempted to do using Nesyamun's mummy, which has resided at the University of Leeds since the early 1800s.

The team first analyzed CT images of the mummy's very well-preserved throat tissues. They used those images to gather exact measurements and create a 3-D printout of the vocal tract -- the area between Nesyamun's larynx (voice box) and lips.

The scientists then hooked up this recreated vocal tract with a loudspeaker-synthesizer device -- an "electronic larynx" -- to produce the vocalized sound.

The single sound produced fell between the vowels in English words "bed" and "bad," the team said.

Recreating this vocalized sound should be in keeping with Nesyamun's wishes: His sealed coffin bears the inscription, "Nesyamun, true of voice."

More than that, his wish to speak once more was inscribed on his coffin.

"In these texts, Nesyamun asks that his soul receives eternal sustenance, is able to move around freely and to see and address the gods as he had in his working life," the research team noted.

"Therefore, his documented wish to be able to speak after his death, combined with the excellent state of his mummified body, made Nesyamun the ideal subject" for voice reconstruction, they added.

As it was, Nesyamun lived through tough political times -- the turbulent reign of Ramses XI, who ruled between 1099-1069 B.C.

Howard's team stressed that the single sound produced in their experiment does not mean that conversations with Nesyamun are going to happen anytime soon.

"This acoustic output is for the single sound for the extant vocal tract shape; it does not provide a basis for synthesizing running speech," the team wrote. "To do so would require knowledge of the relevant vocal tract articulations, phonetics and timing patterns of his language."

Still, adding in those other complex elements isn't impossible, so making the dead speak again is certainly not out of the question.

"He certainly can't speak at the moment," Howard told The New York Times. "But I think it's perfectly plausible to suggest that one day it will be possible to produce words that are as close as we can make them to what he would have sounded like."

Not everyone agrees, however. Piero Cosi works at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Italy, and was a part of a team that reconstructed the voice of Otzi the Iceman in 2016.

Speaking to the Times, he was skeptical that scientists will ever know exactly what the voices of people who died centuries ago sounded like.

"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," Cosi said.

Still, something approximating the real voice of someone long dead could go a long way to bringing history alive, the research team said.

Nesyamun's "body and coffin have been on permanent display in Leeds Museum for almost two centuries, and although few visitors can read his coffin's hieroglyphic texts for themselves, the possibility of transmitting their vocalization would not only fulfill Nesyamun's own wishes as he himself expressed, but make them accessible to all," the team pointed out.

Hearing the voice of the priest "after a three millennia silence" could give museum visitors a sense of Nesyamun's individuality, "emphasizing his humanity, with the potential to excite and inspire," the researchers concluded.

More information

There's more on how the voice works at The Voice Foundation.

SOURCES: Jan. 23, 2020, Scientific Reports; The New York Times
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