After 3,000 years of lying silent, the voice of a mummified Egyptian priest has been heard again.
The body of Nesyamun, who lived at the time of the Pharaohs, is so well preserved that his vocal tract is intact.
Researchers have been able to reconstruct the sound of his voice in a breakthrough that could one day establish what Tutankhamun sounded like.
The mummy was put through a CT scanner at Leeds General Infirmary to establish the measurements of his mouth and throat. Scientists then 3D-printed a replica of his vocal tract and used an electronic larynx to recreate how he spoke.
The result is a single vowel between ‘a’ and ‘e’, but experts say full sentences may be possible within two years.
They want to recreate the priest chanting part of the liturgy he gave every day in the 11th century BC so it can be played at Leeds City Museum where his mummy is displayed.
Professor Joann Fletcher of York University, one of the team behind the breakthrough, said: ‘To be able to hear an Ancient Egyptian quite honestly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It is such a thrill to be able to hear the voice of Nesyamun, who wanted so much to be heard after death, and who lived at such a cataclysmic time. It opens up an entirely new way in which people can engage with Ancient Egypt.’
Professor David Howard, of Royal Holloway, University of London, added: ‘We know from using this technology in people who have lost their voices that it is very accurate, so we are likely to have Nesyamun’s true voice. We are lucky to have the words this priest gave in his liturgy and recited in front of the gods’ statues in Karnak temple, so plan to seek funding to recreate this using his voice.’
The mummy of Nesyamun, whose bandaged remains were preserved with spices and conifer resin, was first unwrapped in 1824 and his sarcophagus carries the inscription ‘Nesyamun, true of voice’. He lived during the reign of Ramses XI between 1099 and 1069 BC, and was a scribe and priest at the state temple of Karnak in Thebes – modern-day Luxor.
Unusually, his mummy has its tongue sticking out, leading to speculation that he died in his mid-50s either from poisoning or a bee sting to the tongue.
But his vocal tract was far more interesting to the research team. Scientists removed the mummy from Leeds Museum to scan and work out the size of his throat cavity, which controls the sound of an individual voice. The white plastic replica is smaller than that of a modern man, probably because Ancient Egyptians were on average 5ft to 5ft 4ins tall, and this may have made Nesyamun’s voice slightly higher pitched.
The type of electronic larynx involved is normally used to give artificial speech to people who lose their voice in accidents or after laryngectomy operations.
A study on the project, published in the journal Scientific Reports, says that Nesyamun wanted his voice to be heard after death.
His sarcophagus says he was ‘true of voice’ because the Egyptians believed someone needed to speak to the Gods after death to gain access to the afterlife.
Researchers may be able to reconstruct the voices of other Egyptian mummies such as Tutankhamun using tissue from their throat or mouth, or less accurately using their skeleton to estimate the size of their vocal tract.
Interest in ancient Egypt has been heightened in Britain by the Tutankhamun’s Priceless Treasures exhibition, which opened in November and is showing until May at London’s Saatchi Gallery.