This Is What a 3,000-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Mummy Sounds Like

Scientists have recreated the sound of an ancient Egyptian priest's voice with the help of his 3,000-year-old mummy.

The researchers used non-destructive CT scans to examine the larynx and throat of the priest—known as Nesyamun—and found that it was largely intact as a result of the mummification process.

Using these scans, they then created a 3D-printed vocal tract that they fitted with an artificial larynx know as the Vocal Tract Organ. Using this set-up, the team reproduced a single vowel sound that sounds like a midway point between the "e" and the "a" in the words "bed" and "bad," according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"The vocal tract 3D shape can be taken from the CT scan and then 3D-printed to create a model of Nesyamun's vocal tract—the tube from his larynx in the neck to his lips," David Howard, an author of the study from Royal Holloway, University of London, told Newsweek. "This is then placed on the loudspeaker that is part of the Vocal Tract Organ which plays the typical sound produced by a human larynx into the 3D tract and the resulting sound from the lip end of the tube is what Nesyamun would have sounded like."

"The resulting sound is a single vowel-like sound because we only have that one vocal tract shape for him," he said. "This one shape is also the shape of his tract as he is interred so it is not necessarily part of a spoken sound. However, it is a sound from his unique vocal tract and for that reason, it can be linked to what he sounded like."

The idea behind the project was to investigate the feasibility of restoring the vocal sounds of ancient human remains, with the aim of helping people to engage with the past in a novel way.

"Since [restoring the sound] would require the perfect preservation of the vocal tract, the process is only feasible when the soft tissue is completely intact, as in the case of mummified remains, be they naturally preserved European bog bodies or artificially preserved Egyptian mummies," Howard said.

Nesyamun mummy
The 3,000-year-old coffin of Nesyamun, on display at Leeds City Museum Leeds City Museum

While the researchers did not synthesize Nesyamun's actual speech, they say the study provides the methodology for creating vocals sounds from the past using modern technology. This could pave the way for the possibility of creating more complex speech sounds in the future.

Experts believe that Nesyamun was a high-ranking priest and scribe at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes—modern-day Luxor—over 3,000 years ago during the politically volatile reign of pharaoh Ramses XI (c. 1099-1069 BC).

"As the only mummified body securely dated to this key period in Egyptian history, Nesyamun had died in his mid-50s, his body revealing severely worn, rather protruding teeth, and his larynx apparently intact," Howard said.

After his death—which likely occurred as a result of a severe allergic reaction—he was mummified and placed in an ornate coffin decorated with scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The mummy is currently on display at a museum in the English city of Leeds, where it has resided since 1823.