Thanks to modern imaging and 3D printing, we now know what an ancient Egyptian mummy looked like. David Howard at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his colleagues have reconstructed the vocal tract of Nesyamun, a priest who lived quite 3000 years ago during the reign of pharaoh Ramses XI. They have used the reconstruction to breed a sound that falls between English vowel sounds in “bed” and “bad”, and resembles a quick groan. The mummy, held at Leeds City Museum, is one among the simplest preserved within the UK, says Howard.
The team used CT scans to image the mummy’s vocal tract, measuring the position of the airway, bone and soft tissue structures.
The vocal tract – which in humans consists of the laryngeal cavity, the pharynx, and therefore the oral and nasal cavities – was then digitally recreated.
Finally, the resulting model was 3D printed and used with an electronic larynx that generates sound.
The mummy is preserved during a reclining position, with the top tilted back. “What we’ve ended up with is that the sound of his vocal tract because it is about in his coffin,” says Howard. “It isn’t necessarily an articulation position he would have utilized in speech.” The mummy’s tongue had lost a number of its muscle bulk over millennia, and therefore the taste bud was absent, which can also affect the accuracy of the reproduction. “Why it’s missing, we don’t know – it’s possible it had been a part of the interment process,” says Howard.
Nesyamun worked as a scribe and priest in Thebes, and his ritual duties involved spoken and sung elements.
Inscriptions on his coffin include an epithet that translates to “true of voice”.
It may be possible to get a spread of speech sounds by changing the form of the recreated vocal tract, says Howard.