In his lifetime, Nesyamun was an Egyptian priest who sang words of worship at the temple of Karnak in Thebes. After his death, he was mummified and sealed in a coffin with the inscription "Nesyamun, the true voice".
Now, approximately 3,000 years later, Nesyamun could be heard again – with the help of a 3D printed vocal device.
"He wanted his voice to continue, somehow," said David Howard, a speech scientist at Royal Holloway, at the University of London. He and his team used a CT scanner to create a 3D printed version of Nesyamun's mouth and throat – and combined the result with an electronic larynx to reconstruct “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he were in the coffin and his larynx revived ”.
So far, the team has synthesized only one sound, which resembles those of the vowels "a" and "e". But the discovery, published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, could provide the basis for recreating and hearing the voice of an ancient person.
In 2016, employees at the City Museum of Leeds, UK, where Nesyamun has been for the past 200 years, took the mummy to a hospital for a CT scan. The examination showed that a large part of his throat remained intact.
"The mummification process was fundamental in this case," said Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at York University in England, who authored the article. “The excellent quality of preservation achieved by the ancient embalmers made Nesyamun's vocal tract to remain in excellent condition.”
Using computed tomography, the team printed a 3D copy of Nesyamun's vocal tract, between the larynx and the lips. Howard then took a loudspeaker, similar to those used in vendors' cars, removed the horn part and replaced it with the 3D printed vocal tract.
Then he connected the speaker to a computer, which allowed him to create an electronic waveform similar to that used in ordinary speech synthesizers. This worked like an artificial larynx.
Using computer software, Howard was able to generate a sound that passed through the speaker and entered the printed vocal apparatus, creating the sound of the mummy's vowel.
"Nesyamun certainly cannot speak yet," he said. "But I think it is perfectly plausible to suggest that one day we can produce words as close as possible to what his words would be."
Translation by Luiz Roberto Mendes Gonçalves