Employed as a high-ranking priest and scribe at the Karnak state temple in Thebes, Nesyamun performed rituals filled with both song and speech. Active during the turbulent reign of Ramses XI, who served as Egypt’s pharaoh between 1099 and 1069 B.C., he died in his mid-50s, likely due to a severe allergic reaction, and suffered from ailments including gum disease and heavily worn teeth. And, as evidenced by inscriptions on his coffin, Nesyamun hoped his soul would one day speak to the gods much as he had in life.
A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports fulfills the 3,000-year-old priest’s vision of the afterlife, drawing on CT scans of his surprisingly intact vocal tract to engineer an approximation of his voice. The sound bite, created with a speech synthesizing tool called the Vocal Tract Organ, reconstructs “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life again,” says study co-author David Howard, a speech scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, to the New York Times’ Nicholas St. Fleur.
The clip itself is brief and vaguely underwhelming, capturing a single vowel sound media outlets have described as “resembl[ing] a brief groan,” “a bit like a long, exasperated ‘meh’ without the ‘m,’” “a sound caught between the words ‘bed’ and ‘bad,’” and “rather like ‘eeuuughhh.’”
Per the Washington Post’s Ben Guarino, Howard and his colleagues used a CT scan of Nesyamun’s vocal tract—a biologically unique speech-supporting tube that stretches from the larynx to the lips—to 3-D print a copy of his throat. They then hooked this artificial organ to a loudspeaker and played an electronic signal mimicking the sound of a “human larynx acoustic output.” (Howard has previously used this technique on living humans, including himself, but the new research marks the first time the technology has been used to recreate a deceased individual’s voice, reports CNN’s Katie Hunt.)
Though the study serves as proof-of-concept for future voice recreation research, it has several practical limitations. As co-author and University of York archaeologist John Schofield tells Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky, Nesyamun’s supine burial position curbed the experiment’s scope.
Schofield explains, “The vocal tract has only one shape here—the shape as he lies in his sarcophagus—that produced just one sound.”
Another limiting factor, says Howard to CNN, was the priest’s lack of tongue muscles, which had long since wasted away. In truth, the speech scientist adds, the noise heard in the audio isn’t a “sound he would ever likely have made in practice because the bulk of his tongue isn’t there.”
Daniel Bodony, an aeroacoustics expert at the University of Illinois who was not involved in the study, tells the Post the team’s electronic approximation “sounds tinny” because Nesyamun’s mummy lacks fleshy, vibrating vocal folds capable of adding “richness and emotion” to one’s words.
In the future, the researchers may be able to overcome this and other obstacles by modifying their software to better approximate such factors as the size of the priest’s tongue and the position of his jaw. The team’s eventual goal is to move beyond singular vowel sounds to words and even full sentences.
“When visitors encounter the past, it is usually a visual encounter,” says Schofield to the Post. “With this voice we can change that. There is nothing more personal than someone’s voice.”
Still, some scholars—including Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist at the University of California, Los Angeles—have expressed concerns over the implications of the new study.
Though she acknowledges the work’s potential, Cooney tells the Times, “When you’re taking a human being and using so much inference about what they looked or sounded like, it can be done with an agenda that you might not even be aware of.”