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Recreating the voice of a 3,000-year-old mummy using 3D printing

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We know that 3D printing is being used as a tool to help preserve artefacts and share cultural histories, but apparently it is also being used to preserve sound, so to speak. A team from the Royal Holloway University of London and the University of York have used 3D printing to recreate the vocal tract of a 3,000-year-old mummy which was able to emit a unique sound.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the research team explained how it used a combination of CT scanning and 3D printing to reproduce the vocal tract belonging to the Egyptian priest Nesyamun, who lived about 3,000 years ago. We now have some idea as to what the ancient priest, whose mummified body now resides at the Leeds City Museum, would have sounded like.

3D printing Mummy vocal tract
The two 3D printed halves of Nesyamun’s vocal tract

The sound was created by using the 3D printed vocal tract with an electronic larynx, the kind typically used for speech synthesis. The noise emitted from the 3D printed replica was a single sound—resembling the vowels between the words “bed” and “bad.”

According to the researchers, the method used to create the sound will not be able to synthesize running speech, but it still provides a unique and interesting insight into how a human who lived three millennia ago sounded.

The research was possible thanks to a combination of factors. For one, a person’s vocal tract has unique dimensions which influences the sound of their voice. Second, because of the mummification process, priest Nesyamun’s vocal tract, and the soft tissues inside of it, were mostly kept in tact.

This meant that the research team was able to use non-destructive CT scanning to capture and measure a significant part of the mummy’s larynx and throat and recreate them digitally. With the CT scan information, the team then 3D printed the vocal tract structure and set it up with an artificial larynx.

“This innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has produced the unique opportunity to hear the vocal tract output of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation and new developments in technology, digital scanning and 3D printing,” the study concludes. “While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians’ fundamental belief that ‘to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again’.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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