He may have laid silent for 3,000 years, but now the voice of a mummified Egyptian priest can be heard once again. The sound of Nesyamun has been reproduced as a vowel-like sound that loosely resembles a protracted sheep's bleat.
The priest lived during the politically volatile reign of pharaoh Ramses XI (c.1099–1069 BC), working as a scribe and priest at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes – modern Luxor.
His voice was an essential part of his ritual duties, which involved spoken as well as sung elements. Now research by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, University of York and Leeds Museum has shed light on what Nesyamun sounded like.
Using measurements of the precise dimensions of his extant vocal tract following a CT scan, they created a 3-D printed vocal tract, known as the Vocal Tract Organ.
The Nesyamun mummy in the CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary (Leeds Museum and Galleries/PA)
By using the Vocal Tract Organ with an artificial larynx sound that is commonly used in today's speech synthesis systems, they synthesized the vowel sound.
The team used a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary to check to see if the significant part of the structure of the larynx and throat of Nesyamun, brought from nearby Leeds Museum, remained intact.
Scientists say the interdisciplinary collaboration has produced the unique opportunity to hear the vocal tract output of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation and new developments in technology. They add that Nesyamun stated a desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever.
The fulfillment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows direct contact to be made with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique.
The Nesyamun mummy (Leeds Museum and Galleries/PA)
“I was demonstrating the Vocal Tract Organ in June 2013 to colleagues, with implications for providing authentic vocal sounds back to those who have lost the normal speech function of their vocal tract or larynx following an accident or surgery for laryngeal cancer," Professor David Howard, from Royal Holloway, said.
“I was then approached by Professor John Schofield who began to think about the archaeological and heritage opportunities of this new development. Hence finding Nesyamun and discovering his vocal tract and soft tissues were in great order for us to be able to do this."
Twitter pitched in with some jokes.
However, the professors involved speak of the importance of the experiment.
“Ultimately, this innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has given us the unique opportunity to hear the sound of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation combined with new developments in technology," Professor Joann Fletcher, of the department of archaeology at the University of York, added. “And while this has wide implications for both healthcare and 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.'"
Professor Howard, from the department of electronic engineering at Royal Holloway, and Professor Schofield, Professor Fletcher and Dr. Stephen Buckley all from the department of archaeology at the University of York, started the project in 2013.
The research is published in the Scientific Reports journal.