A 3,000-year-old mummy has spoken again thanks to modern science, Nature reported. The ancient remains were preserved well enough that the vocal cords were reproduced by scientists, producing a vowel-like sound. Preserved vocal chords are one unexpected benefit of ancient Egyptian mummification.
The ancient scribe and priest Nesyamun worked in Thebes at the temple of Karnak in the 11th century B.C. If he had been told his voice would be heard three millennia later, he surely would have credited transcription of his daily rituals. However, thanks to Computed Tomography (CT) scanning at Leeds General Infirmary in Leeds, England, this metaphor has been made literal.
“The precise dimensions of an individual’s vocal tract produce a sound unique to them,” the article said. “If the tract dimensions can be scientifically established, vocal sounds can be synthesised by using an electronic larynx sound source and a 3-D printed vocal tract. 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.”
Although it may have only produced a single sound for scientists, Nesyamun’s voice comes to the modern world courtesy of other death practices of ancient Egypt.
We Can’t All Be Pharaohs
The prevailing cultural notion of ancient Egyptian’s attitudes towards death and the afterlife was one of opulence. Egyptian pyramids were built to house pharaohs, their belongings, their pets, and even their servants, in death—whether those servants liked the idea or not. However, commoners and the very poor were not given this special treatment, although that didn’t stop them from dreaming.
“Egyptian beliefs about the fate of the pharaoh in the next world had a trickle-down effect on the population as a whole,” said Dr. Robert Garland, the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. “Over time the belief arose that, even if you were poor in this life, you could enjoy at least a decent standard of living in the next life.”
According to Dr. Garland, most Egyptologists believe that the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife and the smooth transition to it came from their chance discovery of bodies that had been naturally preserved by being laid on hot, dry sand. Unlike average corpses that had given way to decay, these dead bodies appeared to have “survived” the ravages of death, leading them to believe that the spirit could do so as well.
“But this is the important thing to note: Your body must be preserved for your spirit to survive,” Dr. Garland said. “And being a body, it will need all the necessities of life—of life in this world.
“The irony is that if the Egyptians had continued interring bodies into the sand, as they did to begin with, they would have been much better preserved, since mummification—which is what the Egyptians practiced from the Fourth Dynasty onward, from around 2,500 B.C.—is far less effective as a way of preserving the body than the bare, hot sand.”
In order for bodies like Nesyamun’s to remain intact for 3,000 years, a thorough embalming method had to be perfected.
It became common practice for wealthy Egyptian families to take newly dead bodies to the west bank of the Nile, where embalmers lived. Embalmers set up on the west bank due to the belief that the western sunset implied that the land of the dead was in the west. There, bodies were incised on the side and their organs removed and placed in Canopic jars.
“The Egyptians believed that you’d be reunited with your internal organs in the afterlife, so long as the Canopic jars were buried with you,” Dr. Garland said. “The embalmers [would] then cleanse and sew up the interior of the body and sew the incision up; this all took about 10 days.”
After this, the bodies would lie on tables covered in natron sand, for 70 days. This practice removed moisture from them, before they would be washed and wrapped.
Less fortunate families could only afford a less glamorous treatment, in which oil was squirted up the anus. Eventually the oil would be released, and the internal organs, now dissolved, simply fell out.
With their bodies more or less preserved, depending on what their families could afford, the dead then faced the funerals and burial rituals that are so well-known today.
Dr. Robert S. J. Garland contributed to this article. Dr. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London.