The process of mummification has literally allowed us to see into the past, but a new scientific experiment has provided us with one step closer to meeting the real person!
The voice tract from a 3,000 year old mummy has been artificially restored using CT scans, a 3D-printer and a voice synthesiser. All details were published recently in Scientific Reports.
Most people yet impressed, are confused as to why the scientists who undertook this project would bother doing such a thing. But, as a study co-author John Schofield explained, he and his colleagues simply wanted to see if it could be done, which is a good enough reason as far as we’re concerned.
“We wanted to see whether we could recreate a voice from the past,” Schofield, an archaeologist from the University of York, told Gizmodo. “We did this both to enhance our understanding of the past culture as well as demonstrating that this could be done,” to which he added: “Part of the motivation was also to enhance ways that people can engage with the past, at museums and heritage sites for example.”
Everyone is different, unique dimensions of our vocal tracts generate distinctively different sounds also. So the experiment was carried out by characterising the dimensions of the ancient Egyptian, specifically an Egyptian priest names Nesyamun. Strangely enough, Nesyamun was awarded the epithet “true of voice” when he passed away. The body was wrapped in such a way to preserve the body for its passage to the afterlife. This means that soft tissue survived which included the thoral cavity for this study.
Remarkably, the state of preservation was very good, with the vocal tract retaining enough physical integrity to proceed with the experiment. Data acquired from a non-destructive CT scanner was used to 3D-print a replica of the mummy’s vocal tract. In turn, the vocal tract model was combined with an artificial larynx called the vocal tract organ, which is often used for speech synthesis. This allowed the researchers to reproduce a single vowel-like sound, which in the English language is akin to a sound caught between the words “bed” and “bad.”
This lone vowel sound, to be fair, is rather underwhelming and somewhat unbecoming of an esteemed Egyptian priest. But that’s what the simulation came up with, so who are we to argue?
Only one sound could be reproduced because “the vocal tract has only one shape here – the shape as he lies in his sarcophagus – that produces just one sound,” said Schofield. To create more, “we shall be looking to manipulate that vocal tract shape on the computer to enable other speech-like sounds to be made, and in the future, running speech phrases are potentially possible,” he said.
Indeed, with this proof-of-concept experiment done, the researchers can now look to other possibilities, such as recreating words and even entire sentences. Hopefully they’ll be able to make the mummy sound more sinister, but these early results would suggest otherwise.