Speaking to the Dead: Researchers recreate ancient priest’s voice

Recently, a group of researchers in the United Kingdom made an incredible discovery, the “voice” of an Ancient Egyptian Priest has been heard for the first time since he had died and been mummified 3,000 years ago. His name is Nesyamun, and around 1100 BC he served the Pharaoh Ramses XI, the Tenth and Final Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty of Egypt and also considered to be the last King in the New Kingdom Period. Nesyamun was a Priest, incense-bearer, and scribe of an Ancient Egyptian Temple Complex located in Karnek.

Nesyamun’s Mummified body has been residing in Leeds City’s Museum while being the subject of scrutiny, he was unwrapped in 1824 and studies show that he died in his 50s; his cause of death was determined to be strangulation until later it was proposed that he had died from an insect sting on his tongue, experts deduced that this was the reason for his tongue to be sticking out of his mouth but there were no signs of damage to the bones around his neck. He may have had an unfortunate death but Nesyamun had some luck in regards to the afterlife, his mummified body was moved before the Leeds Blitz in 1941, a bombing raid that destroyed many artifacts.

As mentioned in the article earlier, a team of researchers has a 3D-Printed reproduction of Nesyamun’s Vocal Tract to hear what his voice would have sounded like.

Nesyamun’s Voice, Recreated.
The Guardian

Professor David Howard, head of the department of electronic engineering at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the Study’s Co-Author had this to say:

“What we have done is to create the sound of Nesyamun as he is in his sarcophagus, It is not a sound from his speech as such, as he is not actually speaking.”

Professor David Howard, Head of the Electronic Engineering Department at the Royal Holloway of the University of London

The team revealed that they had taken Nesyamun’s Mummified body to Leets General Infirmary and carried out a series of CT Scans; from there on, the team was able to produce a digital reconstruction of his vocal tract, and reproduce it through 3D Printing, according to what was written in the Journal Scientific Reports. After a long stretch of time and burial had taken its toll on the mummified remains, the tongue was shriveled up causing the soft palate to be missing, meaning the team would have to Virtually fill in the missing portion. Then came the part of coupling their model to an Electronic Larynx with a loudspeaker. The vocal tract filters sound that is produced by air that passed through the larynx with the resulting sound being unique to each person. Then, the different components of the vocal tract produce particular words or different vocalizations.

 “Our larynx sound is electronic and if that sound were produced by Nesyamun, he would be passing lung air outwards via his larynx where his vocal folds would be vibrating to create the same effect.”

Professor David Howard, Head of the Electronic Engineering Department at the Royal Holloway of the University of London

If this Insect Sting theory was correct, this would mean the sound of Neysuman’s last gasp would have been “Ow!” Or “Augh!” But the team found the vocalization produced sounded like “eeeuuughhh.” Professor Howard pointed out that the sound was specific of Neysuman lying in his coffin after mummification. To better figure out the sound that was produced by the Neysuman vocal tract, the team began analyzing the recordings from modern men and the team mentions that the mummy’s sound fell somewhere between the vowels in “bed” and “bad“. Professor Howard then pointed out that the dimensions of Neysuman’s Larynx and Vocal Tract suggested that his voice would have a slightly higher pitch than an average man today.

The team had written that Neysuman’s voice was crucial for his work, (even in death) it required him to either talk, sing, or chant in his role as a priest, incense bearer, and the scribe at the Karnak Temple in Thebes; which is known as Waset to Ancient Egyptians. Professor Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist, and honorary visiting professor at the archaeology department at the University of York who also is the Co-Author of the study mentions:

“Every Egyptian hoped that after death their soul would be able to speak, in order for them to recite the so-called ‘negative confession’ telling the gods of judgement that they had led a good life, Only if the gods agreed could the deceased soul pass through into eternity – if they failed the test they died a second, permanent death.”

Professor Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist, and honorary visiting professor at the archaeology department at the University of York.

Fletcher added onto this mentioning those who had passed the test were deemed “true of voice”, the phrase that appeared in Neysuman’s coffin inscription alongside his name. Another Co-Author of the study named John Schofield, a professor and archaeologist said the team’s approach could offer the public a new way to engage with the past.

“It is just the sheer excitement and the extra dimension that this could bring to museum visits, for example, or site visits to Karnak, The idea of going to a museum and coming away having heard a voice from 3,000 years ago is the sort of thing people might well remember for a long time. What we’d like to try to do next is develop a computer model that will allow us to move [the vocal tract] around and form different vowel sounds and hopefully, ultimately words, This [current sound] is never a sound he would have made in life, but from it we can create sounds that would have been made during his lifetime.”

John Schofield, Professor, and Archaeologist from the University of York.

Schofield adds that this approach could be applied to other preserved remains, such as the iron age bog bodies found in Denmark and beyond. Egyptology Professor Salima Ikram from the American University in Cairo who wasn’t involved in the work described the study as “Amazingly Cool,” going onto saying that it would be a useful comparison to use 3D models from living humans to explore the accuracy of the approach.

“This study gives us a unique aural insight into the past and connects us intimately with Nesyamun, giving him a voice in the 21st century.”

Salima Ikram, Egyptology Professor at the American University in Cairo.

If you would like to read more about this remarkable discovery, head to the Scientific Reports website. The information here was provided by both the Scientifc Reports and the Guardian.

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