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The mummy returns - 3D-printed vocal tract reveals a 'hmmm' from beyond the grave

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UK and German scientists have recreated a sound that could have been made by an ancient Egyptian priest called Nesyamun who was mummified 3,000 years ago by 3D-printing his vocal tract, and he sounds distinctly unimpressed by the whole thing. They used CT-scanning, 3D-printing and an electronic larynx to recreate the sound, which they say does not provide the basis for synthesising his speech, but reproduces the unique sound made by his vocal tract. Nesyamun's larynx and throat remained intact thanks to the mummification process, allowing the scientists to recreate the single sound, which they reckon falls between the vowels in the English words ‘bed’ and ‘bad’.

Journal/conference: Scientific Reports

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41598-019-56316-y

Organisation/s: Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

Funder: Centre for Digital Heritage, University of York and Pharos Research.

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

3D-printed vocal tract reproduces sound of ancient mummy

The sound produced by the vocal tract of a 3,000 year-old Egyptian mummy has been synthesized using CT scans, 3D printing and an electronic larynx. The findings are presented in a study published in Scientific Reports. The acoustic output is a single sound; it does not provide the basis for synthesizing running speech.

The precise dimensions of an individual’s vocal tract produce a unique sound. If the dimensions of a vocal tract can be established, vocal sounds can be synthesized by using a 3D-printed vocal tract and an electronic larynx. For this to be feasible, the soft tissue of the vocal tract needs to be reasonably intact.

David Howard, John Schofield and colleagues used non-destructive CT to confirm that a significant part of the structure of the larynx and throat of the 3,000 year-old mummified body of the Egyptian priest Nesyamun remained intact as a result of the mummification process. This allowed the authors to measure the vocal tract shape from CT images. Based on these measurements, the authors created a 3D-printed vocal tract for Nesyamun and used it with an artificial larynx commonly used in speech synthesis. They were able to reproduce a single sound, falling between the vowels in the English words ‘bed’ and ‘bad’.

The authors suggest that their proof-of-concept recreation of a vocal tract preserved over three millennia has implications for the way in which the past is presented to the public in the present; it may provide an opportunity to hear the vocal tract output of an individual that lived in ancient times.


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