Scientists reconstruct the eerie "voice" of ancient mummy
The dead speak! Well, sort of. Scientists have recreated the “voice” of a 3,000-year-old mummy by scanning the shape of his vocal tract, 3D printing a replica of it, then hooking it up to an electronic larynx. The resulting sound is a single vowel, and while it may be a tad underwhelming in the light of day, it’s definitely not something you’d want to hear while exploring a tomb by torchlight.
Everybody has a unique voice, and that’s largely because of differences in the sizes and shapes of parts of the vocal tract. If all this nuance can be captured in an artificial reproduction, then theoretically someone’s voice can be reconstructed as well.
In the new study, researchers from the UK and Germany have managed to do just this with a 3,000-year-old mummy. Nesyamun, as he was known in life, was an Egyptian priest, and in the almost 200 years since the discovery of his remains he’s become one of the most well-studied mummies in the world.
Thanks to the mummification process, the soft tissues of the vocal tract were remarkably well-preserved, even after three millennia. The researchers conducted CT scans of Nesyamun’s larynx and throat, allowing them to measure the all-important dimensions. From this, they were able to create a 3D computer model of the mummy’s vocal tract, and then 3D print a realistic replica.
When this was connected to an artificial larynx, which are often used in speech synthesis, the team was able to reproduce part of Nesyamun’s voice. It’s just one sound, which lies somewhere between the vowel sounds in the words “bed” and “bad.” Have a listen below:
That short groan may not be a particularly rousing speech, but it’s the only sound that Nesyamun can make anymore. That’s because of the shape his vocal tract settled into after death, and producing full words involves a suite of moving parts. Unfortunately, the team says that it’s unlikely they will be able to reconstruct running speech with this process, because other tissues like his tongue and soft palate haven’t stood the test of time quite as well.
That said, it’s a fascinating – and somewhat eerie – way to experience the past.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.