The study authors said that the priest, named Nesyamun, would be pleased with this postmortem re-creation of his voice. “It is the fulfillment of his belief” to have his voice heard in the afterlife, said study author John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York in England.
Nesyamun worked as a scribe at the temple of Karnak in Thebes. His voice would have been critical in his priestly duties as he spoke, chanted and sang. Nesyamun was mummified and entombed in a coffin inscribed with hieroglyphs, mainly texts from the Book of the Dead.
Since 1823, his body has been kept at Leeds City Museum, where his body was unwrapped. Scholars, surgeons and chemists have examined him in the many years since, probing the mummy by microscope, endoscope and X-ray. A “multidisciplinary scientific investigation” of Nesyamun, published in 1828, “was the first of its kind in the world,” Schofield said.
In the new work, scientists made precise measurements of Nesyamun’s well-preserved vocal tract, using a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary. From this scan, they printed a 3-D copy of his throat and hooked it up to a loudspeaker. They fed an electronic signal (a simulation of “a human larynx acoustic output,” said study author David Howard) through the faux organ to produce the voice.
The single sound represents a proof-of-concept work, said Howard, who studies human speech and singing at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London. “To produce other vowels would require changes to the shape of the vocal tract,” Howard said. That is their next step, with the eventual goal of producing words, singing and even speech.
Vocal tracts are biologically unique, said Daniel Bodony, an aeroacoustics expert at the University of Illinois who was not a part of the research team.
The study’s authors captured Nesyamun’s from his lips back down to the trachea. But the vocal tract is only half of what makes “the human being sound like the human being,” Bodony said. The other half flutters at the base of the tract: the vocal folds, also known as cords or reeds. Human vocal folds vibrate at multiple frequencies, yielding “richness and emotion,” and the sound the vibration produces is further distorted by traveling through the tract. An electronic substitute for fleshy vibration is why this re-creation “sounds tinny,” Bodony said.
Bart de Boer, who studies the evolution of speech at Vrije University in Brussels, said that “I do think the sound is an accurate re-creation of a sound Nesyamun could have made.” Simple, fixed utterances of aah-like sounds do not require the movement of tongues or teeth. But, de Boer said, “we also do not really know whether [this vowel noise] was a sound that was actually used in his language.”
The study authors anticipate this re-creation, and future expansions of Nesyamun’s voice, will be a hit with Leeds’s audience of museum-goers. “When visitors encounter the past, it is usually a visual encounter. With this voice we can change that,” Schofield said. “There is nothing more personal than someone’s voice.”
The dimensions of Nesyamun’s tract, smaller than a modern adult man’s, suggest he might have been a tenor. If so, the priest would have been a welcome addition to singers Howard directs. “We need them in my choir!” Howard said — meaning tenors, not mummies.