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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Explained: How did scientists recreate sound of 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy

The sound, which has been reproduced, is “vowel-like” and has been produced based on precise measurements of the mummy’s existing vocal tract. These measurements were determined by taking a computerised tomography (CT) scan of the mummy.

Written by Mehr Gill , Edited by Explained Desk | Updated: January 26, 2020 5:53:53 am
In their paper, which has been published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers write that it is the precise dimensions of an individual’s vocal tract that produces a sound unique to them. (Photo courtesy: NYT)

For the first time, scientists have reconstructed the voice of an ancient human being, that of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy named Nesyamun (as per his coffin inscriptions). Nesyamun is believed to have lived during the politically volatile reign of pharaoh Ramses XI. During that time, he worked as a scribe or a priest in Thebes (modern-day Luxor).

Even so, this is not the first time that Nesyamun has become the subject of a scientific study. After his body was unwrapped in 1824, it was examined by the members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, who published a multidisciplinary scientific investigation on him four years later. He was also the subject of some other scientific studies that revealed that Nesyamun died in his mid-50s and suffered from gum disease and severely worn teeth.

How did the scientists reconstruct the mummy’s voice?

The sound, which has been reproduced, is “vowel-like” and has been produced based on precise measurements of the mummy’s existing vocal tract. These measurements were determined by taking a computerised tomography (CT) scan of the mummy. The researchers then built a three dimensional model of the mummy’s vocal tract using a 3D printer and by connecting it to an electronic larynx were able to produce an output.

In their paper, which has been published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers write that it is the precise dimensions of an individual’s vocal tract that produces a sound unique to them. If researchers are able to figure out these dimensions and establish them scientifically, then vocal sounds can be synthesised using an electronic larynx sound source and a three-dimensional printed vocal tract. Even so, the researchers write that the restoration of an “exact” vocal sound requires the “perfect preservation” of soft tissues, which is impossible for individuals whose remains are only skeletal. In some cases, even if the soft tissue survives, for instance in mummified remains, “the vocal tract can either be missing or distorted.”

“The process is only feasible when the relevant soft tissue is reasonably intact, as in the case of the 3,000-year-old mummified body of the Egyptian priest Nesyamun, whose ‘in death’ vocal tract acoustic output has been scientifically synthesised,” they write.

Furthermore, this acoustic output is only capable of producing a single sound and not running speech. To synthesise running speech, researchers would need to know the “relevant vocal tract articulations, phonetics and timing patterns of his language.”

What is the significance of this sound reproduction?

One of the modern applications of this voice synthesis technique includes “giving back” vocal sounds to those individuals who have lost normal vocal fold function following physical trauma, for instance. The process of creating three-dimensional printed vocal tracts was based on a technique proposed by Bertrand Delvaux.

Significantly, the researchers note that using synthesised voice from a deceased person raises its own ethical concerns that may need to be discussed. But for now, the potential benefits of studying Nesyamun outweigh the ethical concerns since the scientific techniques used are “non-destructive”.

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