An Ancient-Egyptian priest named Nesyamun had one wish when he died: he hoped for life after death. Three thousand years later, that dream became a reality, thanks to a team of pioneering academics from a trio of English universities. Together, they rebuilt parts of the mummy’s throat and listened as the ancient priest grumbled into life once again.
In his first life, Nesyamun would have needed a commanding tone to his voice. He served as a priest at an Egyptian temple called Karnak. Upon his death, which happened circa 1100 B.C., he was mummified in preparation for the afterlife. Nowadays, his remains reside in the U.K., where he’s considered one of the country’s most noteworthy mummies on display.
And that distinction came before scientists had the idea to bring Nesyamun back to life, too. They wouldn’t reanimate the mummy’s entire body, of course. Instead, they used 3D printing to reconstruct the ancient priest’s vocal tract. Then, by using this in conjunction with a manmade larynx sound, they could listen to what he had to say.
The Karnak Temple Complex in modern-day Luxor stands as Egypt’s second-most popular tourist site, just behind the Giza Pyramids. When the cluster of chapels, temples, pylons and other structures was in its heyday, it had even more importance to the people of Ancient Egypt. That’s because Karnak, then located in the city of Thebes, gave people a place to worship.
The largest portion of Karnak paid homage to the Theban peoples’ chief deity, Amun. Ancient Egyptians carried sandstone from 100 miles away to construct this precinct of the holy site and all of its statues, including a 95-foot-tall obelisk. Not everyone could approach these structures to Amun, though.
Nesyamun had earned the right to enter the temple of Amun, though. The ancient spiritual leader had risen the ranks to become a waab priest, showing the level of purification that he had reached. As such, he could get close to the statue of Amun, which sat in the most sacred section of the deity’s temple.
Nesyamun’s work didn’t just require him to be in the proximity of the Amun statue, though. The priest served as the temple’s scribe during his post there. He also led religious rituals, which had him singing and speaking to worshippers. Clearly, a strong voice would be important to him.
Historians know this and other details about Nesyamun because of the way his body was preserved after his death in about 1100 BC. For instance, they found a leather ornament tucked into the bandages wrapped around the waab priest’s body. That little trinket indicated that Nesyamun died under the rule of Ramesses XI, who led Egypt from 1113 to 1085 BC.
Some details about Nesyamun were more overt, though. For one thing, his coffin came inscribed with the words, “Nesyamun, true of voice.” Other etchings revealed that the waab priest hoped that his soul would be just as vocal – he wanted to speak to the gods once he reached the afterlife, too.
Further scientific research has revealed more about Nesyamun’s life – and death. For instance, scientists have been able to determine that the priest had gum disease, and he had begun to lose his teeth.They also found that he likely passed away in his 50s, quite possibly as a result of a lethal allergic reaction.
Of course, researchers wouldn’t know anything about Nesyamun without the discovery of his remains. That happened in 1823, when his body surfaced at Karnak. From there, it ended up at the Leeds City Museum, where experts have researched it for years. And they’re lucky to have had that opportunity, considering the fiery events in the city’s recent past.
In fact, a World War II bombing raid ravaged Leeds in 1941, wiping out a portion of the museum. Up until that point, Nesyamun had resided at the museum as part of a trio of mummies. But a bomb blasted away the front part of the building, destroying the other two Ancient-Egyptian bodies. Fortunately, only the lid of Nesyamun’s coffin saw any damage.
So Nesyamun escaped World War II more or less unscathed and has since become a focus for researchers in Leeds and beyond. His remains have become one of the world’s most intensively studied relics from the Ancient Egyptian era. It seems there’s always more to learn, too: just ask the team of English academics who brought Nesyamun’s voice back.
It all started in 2016 when the team at the Leeds City Museum transported Nesyamun from his display to a hospital close to the museum. There, doctors sent the mummy for a C.T. (computed tomography) scan, which came back with surprising results. Namely, the 3,000-year-old body still had his mouth and throat mostly intact.
The expert mummification of Nesyamun was a key factor in the success of the C.T. scan, according to University of York Egyptologist Joann Fletcher. She told The New York Times newspaper in January 2020, “The superb quality of preservation achieved by the ancient embalmers meant that Nesyamun’s vocal tract is still in excellent shape.”
The vocal tract plays a pivotal role in creating a person’s voice. The initial sound comes from the larynx, across which the vocal cords stretch. As air rolls over the cords, they vibrate to make sounds. A lower rate of vibration would go hand-in-hand with a low-pitched voice. High-frequency vibrations create a high-pitched noise.
The vocal cords have a vital role in determining the normal pitch of a person’s voice. The end product comes down in large part to the tightness and length of these cords. However, the vocal tract itself plays a part in this process, too. It filters larynx vibrations before they emerge as a voice. No matter what, the sound that comes out is always one of a kind: just like fingerprints, no two voices are exactly the same.
As such, a dead person’s voice could only be replicated with the exact dimensions of their vocal tract determined. This is usually impossible, as most buried bodies lose their soft tissue over time, so skeletal remains wouldn’t have a vocal tract to measure and replicate. Of course, mummification ensured that Nesyamun’s form would remain almost entirely intact for three millennia.
It’s true that Nesyamun’s vocal tract wasn’t entirely perfect. Indeed David Howard, a speech scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a 2020 email to TIME magazine that the mummy’s soft palate was missing. Fortunately, the shape of it could be inferred by the team. The specialist explained, “The soft palate is a continuation of the mouth cavity on either side and is a smooth continuation in humans, so was readily ‘fixed.’”
And yet, finding Nesyamun’s vocal tract in near-perfect shape was only the beginning. After that, scholars from the Royal Holloway, University of London and the University of York joined up with the team from the Leeds City Museum. Together, they attempted to restore the mummy’s voice with the remnants they had.
The C.T. scan gave the researchers a blueprint of Nesyamun’s vocal tract, which they recreated with even more modern technology. Namely, they 3D-printed a pristine version of the priest’s vocal tract, from his lips down to his larynx. But the resulting model couldn’t create noise on its own.
Speech expert Howard combined the 3D-printed model with a loudspeaker, much like the one that blares tunes from the top of an ice cream truck. He took off the horn-shaped portion at the end of the device, replacing it with the vocal tract remake.
Howard had already used such a technique on living patients, as well as on himself. However, neither he nor any other expert had ever tried to use the technique to revive a dead person’s voice. So, if the procedure worked on Nesyamun’s vocal tract, it would be the first time a deceased individual would speak again.
So, with Nesyamun’s vocal tract connected to the loudspeaker, Howard hooked the combined device to a computer. With the computer, the speech specialist could send an electric waveform through the speaker. It would work just like a larynx, where vibrations create high- and low-pitch noise to create a person’s voice.
More specifically, the computer system – called a vocal tract organ – would send acoustic signals into the 3D model. Each sound would be in the range of human speech, and the scientists controlled the sounds with a keyboard or joystick. With the press of a button, they could send vibrations through Nesyamun’s vocal tract – and hear his voice in the modern age.
Even with all of this technology ready to revive the mummy’s voice, Howard did admit its shortcomings – at least, at present. He said, “[Nesyamun] certainly can’t speak at the moment. But I think it’s perfectly plausible to suggest that one day it will be possible to produce words that are as close as we can make them to what he would have sounded like.”
In the future, Howard speculated to The New York Times that the technology could feature more moving parts, such as the tongue and the jaw. With those sorts of developments, the Leeds City Museum’s archaeology curator, Katherine Baxter, wondered if one day they could “make Nesyamun actually speak his original words as written on his coffin.”
In 2020, though, all the England-based team had was the recreated vocal tract and the computerized organ with which to create voice-like sounds. So, they gave it a try to see how Nesyamun’s voice would sound, and the mummy spoke up for the first time in 3,000 years.
The rumbles that came from Nesyamun’s vocal tract, as of 2020, mimicked a vowel sound between that of “bed” and “bad”, according to TIME. Others described it as the sound of a sheep’s bleat. Either way, this is just the beginning of what the team hopes they can do with the mummy’s vocal tract in the future.
Unfortunately, Nesyamun’s future speech will likely be limited. Although experts have a great replica of the mummy’s vocal tract, it is one that had been left to recline in a coffin for 3,000 years. As such, it can’t create as many sounds as a normal vocal tract, one in a person who’s standing or sitting.
For now, Howard explained, “The system can create just the steady sound of Nesyamun’s tract as it is in his sarcophagus.” In the future, though, he and other speech experts can study the way that vocal tracts shift and change over time. With that, Howard said, “We can create running speech.”
Making that goal a reality would also ensure that one of Nesyamun’s dreams comes true. Howard told The New York Times that the ancient priest hoped to be reanimated in this way. He said, “[Nesyamun] had this wish that his voice would somehow continue into perpetuity.”
For Getty Research Institute bioarchaeologist Roselyn Campbell, the project marked a principled take on anthropological research, as the Leeds City Museum team brought Nesyamun back to life in the right way. The Los Angeles-based scientist said, “I think their emphasis on returning Nesyamun’s voice, and thus some of his identity, is a vital acknowledgment of the ethical considerations not only in studying the past, but of clarifying the relevance of such research to the modern public.”
Italian speech scientist Piero Cosi pointed out that much of the Leeds City Museum team’s work was merely speculative. Modern technology couldn’t confirm Nesyamun’s voice without room for error. The boffin from Rome’s Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies explained, “Even if we have the precise 3D-geometric description of the voice system of the mummy, we would not be able to rebuild precisely his original voice.”
Other experts feared the ways that similar technology could be used in the future. Egyptologist Kara Cooney, who works at the University of California, Los Angeles, wondered how such an experiment could be used wrongly down the line. She said, “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.”
But the Leeds Museum team had nothing but good intentions for Nesyamun’s new voice. University of York archaeologist John Schofield explained to The Washington Post newspaper that a vocal interaction could change a person’s museum experience. He said, “When visitors encounter the past, it is usually a visual encounter. With this voice we can change that. There is nothing more personal than someone’s voice.”
On that note, many wondered if the Nesyamun project had gone too far. Indeed, most cultures consider human remains to be sacred; interrupting a person’s eternal rest for research could be crossing a line. However, the Leeds City Museum team believed that what they did would have been approved of by the test subject himself.
For one thing, Ancient Egyptian culture encouraged people to speak of the dead to bring them back to life again, even if just for a moment. And this suggestion didn’t just apply to the living – those who died were also told to speak, too. Nesyamun’s orders to do so were written right on his coffin.
According to TIME, the research team wrote in their study published by journal Scientific Reports that Nesyamun’s sarcophagus had an inscription that asked for his eternal life. Once granted, he hoped to “move around freely and to see and address the gods.” Clearly, he’d need a voice for that.
Plus, the paper said, “Only those able to verbally confirm that they had led a virtuous life were granted entry to eternity and and awarded the epithet maat kheru – ‘true of voice.’” With his voice restored, Nesyamun could fulfill all of his wishes for the afterlife. And, with technology improving, there’s so much more that the mummy may soon be able to say.