In what sounds like the premise for yet another reboot of The Mummy, engineers have synthesized the voice of a priest named Nesyamun who lived 3,000 years ago in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes.
The results, published in Scientific Reports on Thursday, include a short simulation of Nesyamun’s voice pronouncing a vowel sound. He honestly doesn’t sound thrilled to be vocally woken up after three millennia of silence.
Nesyamun lived, died, and was mummified sometime around 1100 BCE, during the reign of Ramesses XI. His body, which remains immaculately preserved, has been a part of the Leeds City Museum collection since the 1800s. While his tongue and palate have decomposed, most of the soft tissue in Nesyamun’s vocal tract has remained intact.
If you’re wondering why Nesyamun has so little to say for himself after all these years, it’s because the recording is intended to be a “proof of method” and to “demonstrate future research potential,” according to the study. In order to generate an audio sample of “running speech,” meaning full sentences spoken continuously, scholars will have to account for ambiguous details such as Nesyamum’s phonetics and speech patterns.
“With the concept now proven to work, we can move on to look at computer modeling of the vocal tract,” explained study co-author John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, in an email.
“That way, we can perhaps progress to words and even possibly running speech,” he added.
Nesyamun’s well-preserved vocal tract enabled Schofield and his colleagues to produce a detailed digital reproduction of his oral anatomy using a non-invasive technique called computed tomography (CT) scanning.
The team 3D-printed the vocal tract and paired it with an electronic larynx, a device often used to help people suffering from throat or larynx conditions to synthesize clearer speech. The result was the simulation of a voice that was last heard on Earth in the early Iron Age.
Schofield and his colleagues highlight the applications of this technique for public engagement, and suggest incorporating ancient voice simulations into museum displays or educational materials.
“We would also like to apply the approach to other human remains whose soft tissue survival is good in the oral cavity, and which are accessible for study through scanning,” Schofield said.
But the project is not only designed to appeal to 21st century audiences. Schofield and his colleagues also speculate about what Nesyamun himself would have made of this study, considering that he likely adhered to the Egyptian belief that speaking the names of the dead can make them live again.
“His voice was an essential part of his ritual duties which involved spoken as well as sung elements,” the team said in the study. “Given Nesyamun’s stated 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 us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique.”
That is either a beautiful expression of shared humanity across the ages, or fodder for a schlock horror movie about the vocally inspired reanimation of Nesyamun’s mummified corpse.