CT scans and 3D printing give voice to mummified priest

CT scanning and 3D printing have helped recreate a sound from the vocal tract of Nesyamun, a 3,000-year old mummified priest.

The team used a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary. Pic Credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries

The sound of Nesyamun has been reproduced as a vowel-like sound based on measurements of his remaining vocal tract following CT scanning, which led to the build of a 3D printed vocal tract.

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The Vocal Tract Organ provides a user-controllable artificial larynx and the team used it to synthesise a vowel sound that is said to compare favourably with vowels of modern humans. The study is published in Scientific Reports.

Prof David Howard, from the Department of Engineering at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Prof John Schofield, Prof Joann Fletcher and Dr Stephen Buckley all from the Department of Archaeology at York University, started the project in 2013.

The team used a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary to see if the significant part of the structure of Nesyamun’s larynx and throat remained intact.

The scan allowed the academics to measure the vocal tract shape from CT images and based on these measurements, they created a 3D-printed vocal tract for Nesyamun and used it with an artificial larynx sound that is commonly used in speech synthesis systems.

The precise dimensions of an individual’s vocal tract make voices unique, so for the research to work, the soft tissue of Nesyamun’s vocal tract had to be essentially intact.


Nesyamun's vocal tract

In a statement, Prof David Howard from Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “I was demonstrating the Vocal Tract Organ in June 2013 to colleagues, with implications for providing authentic vocal sounds back to those who have lost the normal speech function of their vocal tract or larynx following an accident or surgery for laryngeal cancer.

“I was then approached by Prof John Schofield who began to think about the archaeological and heritage opportunities of this new development. Hence finding Nesyamun and discovering his vocal tract and soft tissues were in great order for us to be able to do this.

“It has been such an interesting project that has opened a novel window onto the past and we’re very excited to be able to share the sound with people for the first time in 3,000 years.”

Prof Joann Fletcher, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “Ultimately, this innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has given us the unique opportunity to hear the sound of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation combined with new developments in technology.

“And while this has wide implications for both healthcare and museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians’ fundamental belief that ‘to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again’.”