The popular 1999 film, The Mummy, followed characters Rick O’Connell, Evelyn Carnahan, and Johnathan Carnahan, as they accidentally resurrected an ancient mummy and ran for their lives while he wreaked havoc searching for the reincarnation of his long-lost love. While this film is a tale of wild fantasy and mythological legend, it highlights one fact: we are unendingly interested in mummies, in what they can teach us about ancient Egyptian civilization, and what they would have looked sounded like. Now, scientists have recreated the voice of a mummy, bringing a 3,000 year old person’s voice back to life.
Through CT scans, radiocarbon analysis, and 3D printing technology, scientists have been able to determine what some mummies may have looked like, but understanding what their voices may have sounded like has proved to be an impossible task – until recently. A team of researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of York, and Leeds Museum gave a mummy new life by reproducing his voice .
A Priest’s Dying Wish
The mummy’s voice that has been brought back to life belonged to an Egyptian priest named Nesyamun, who lived during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses XI, between 1099 and 1069 BC. Not unlike most of the people who lived during that time, his wish was to have a life after death. Now, three thousand years later, scientists have granted him his desire by replicating his voice with artificial vocal cords .
How Do Your Vocal Chords Produce Sound?
We all talk every day, but have you ever stopped to think about how you do that? Creating sound is one thing, turning that sound into words is another. The spoken word requires three things: Voiced sound, resonance, and articulation.
Voiced Sound: Your vocal cords, also known as vocal folds, are the soft tissue responsible for the vibrations in your larynx (voice box). Voiced sound is what is produced by these folds and is often described as being “buzzy”.
Resonance: Your throat, mouth cavity, and nasal passages are your vocal tract resonators. They are responsible for amplifying and modifying the voiced sound, giving you your own recognizable voice.
Articulation: The tongue, soft palate, and lips modify the voiced sound as well, and you use them to form words.
The process by which you produce sound is called the vocal fold vibratory cycle. A column of air from your lungs opens up the bottom of your vocal cords, moving upwards until it opens the top. This fast-moving air column creates an area of low pressure behind it as it travels, then causing the bottom to close, followed by the top. This closure cuts off the air column, releasing a pulse of air, and then the cycle repeats. As these cycles repeat, the rapid pulses of air created by the vocal cords are what produces voiced sound .
How Did Scientists Recreate Nesyamun’s Voice?
The sound of someone’s voice, then, is just a result of the size and shape of their larynx and their vocal tract resonators. With this information, you can recreate someone’s voice with reasonable accuracy.
To recreate Nesyamun’s voice, scientists scanned the mummy’s vocal tract to establish its exact dimensions. They then used a 3D printer to produce a replica of his voice box. This vocal tract replica, along with an artificial larynx sound, was used to synthesize a vowel sound that is thought to be similar to what the ancient priest’s voice would have sounded like .
This whole process was only possible because Nesyamun’s body was preserved well enough that the soft tissue in his vocal tract was reasonably intact .
What Can We Learn From Mummies?
Modern technology has allowed us to learn much more about Ancient Egypt and its people than ever before. With x-rays, scientists no longer have to destroy the outer wrappings of mummies, and are able to learn more about the diseases Egyptians suffered and what kind of treatment they received. We now have a better idea of their average height and lifespan, their age at death, and are better able to determine the order and dates of the Egyptian Kings .
But why is learning about these ancient people important? Today, mummies provide us with a unique resource to examine the occurrence and patterns of disease. This can provide us with the historical context of many illnesses and medical conditions of the modern world .
By studying the bodies of mummies, we can see the instance of diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer, as well as evidence that some ancient treatments were apparently effective. For these reasons, mummies are often referred to as “museums of disease” .
So far, scientists have only produced the ancient priest’s voiced sound. The next step is to use computer models to create actual words, and eventually sentences.
“We’re hoping we can create a version of what he would have said at the temple at Karnak.” said Archaeology professor John Schofield .
Nesyamun is the only mummy that is known to have lived during the reign of Ramses XI, so there is much we can learn from him about that period of Egypt’s history. His remains can be viewed at Leeds City Museum .
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