In life, Nesyamun was an Egyptian priest who sang and chanted words of worship at the Karnak temple in Thebes. In death, he was mummified and sealed in a coffin with the inscription “Nesyamun, true of voice.” Now, 3,000 years into the afterlife, with the aid of a 3D-printed vocal tract, Nesyamun can once again be heard.
“He had this wish that his voice would somehow continue into perpetuity,” said David Howard, a speech scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Howard and his team used a CT scanner to create a 3D-printed version of Nesyamun’s mouth and throat. They combined it with an electronic larynx to reconstruct “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life,” he said.
So far the team has synthesized only a single sound, which resembles the “ah” and “eh” vowel sounds. But the finding, published in Scientific Reports, may lay the groundwork for re-creating an ancient person’s voice.
In September 2016, a CT scan showed that much of the mummy’s throat was intact. Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at the University of York in England and an author on the paper, said, “The superb quality of preservation achieved by the ancient embalmers meant that Nesyamun’s vocal tract is still in excellent shape.”
Using the CT scan, the team 3D-printed a copy of Nesyamun’s vocal tract between the larynx and lips. Howard then took a loudspeaker, removed the horn portion and replaced it with the 3D-printed vocal tract.
He also connected the loudspeaker to a computer that enabled him to create an electronic waveform similar to what is used in common speech synthesizers. This acted as an artificial larynx. “He certainly can’t speak at the moment,” Howard said. “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.”