Last week, a group of British researchers announced that they had synthesized the voice of a mummy, an Egyptian priest named Nesyamun who had died some 3,000 years ago.
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The announcement received widespread coverage in the UK and abroad, but despite the sensational claims (a “precise recreation” according to the Independent), it was not the actual voice of the living Nesyamun. Rather, his vocal tract had been CT scanned and then 3D printed. And, inevitably, that reconstruction wasn’t exact.
Scholars like conservator Charlotte Parent have emphasized how mummies’ body tissue would change both during the course of embalming and over the thousands of years between their death and the present. And indeed, the researchers indicated some of these changes in the study of Nesyamun: his tongue was dried out, his soft palate missing completely, its position merely estimated. If each vocal tract produces a unique sound because its shape is unique, then the voice produced was neither the sound of Nesyamun when alive, nor that his mummy would make today. It was a vocal tract that has never existed.
Nesyamun’s slight, synthesized groan — not an actual word but simply a vowel sound — was overhyped in the news, and, judging from the parade of joking reactions, readers sensed this. But that hype was not simply the fault of the news coverage: it goes back to the researchers themselves. To the Guardian, the lead author of the study suggested that this is not the sound of Nesyamun in life but “as he is in his sarcophagus” (though we understand this isn’t really correct). Elsewhere, though, they claim it is the “sound resulting from his actual vocal tract.” Leeds Museums & Galleries (which include the Leeds City Museum that houses Nesyamun’s mummy and took part in the study) falsely claimed that they’ve “been able to exactly replicate the sound that would have come from Nesyamun’s vocal tract 3000 years ago.”
Beyond the exaggerated claims, there’s the matter of ethics. Traditionally, ethics have not been an emphasis for Egyptology (though a small but growing group of scholars is trying to change this). Nesyamun’s mummy was removed from Egypt in 1823, at a time of increasing European domination of the country and before the country had enacted any antiquities laws. But mummies aren’t merely Egyptian antiquities; they’re human remains — and not just any human remains. There is a long, morbid history of Western handling of them, collecting them, cutting them apart, grinding them up. Mummies (and how they were unwrapped and studied) were used as a building block of race science — as practitioners measured skulls and bodies, they kept insisting that mummified Egyptians, especially royal bodies, were not African but Caucasian — and so used to justify European exertion of control over modern Egypt. Literary scholars have credibly suggested that the theme of the reanimated mummy and its curse reflect anxiety over British imperial control of Egypt. Seen in this light, CT scans are just the latest measuring tool to be exploited by Egyptologists, and British researchers hyping how they synthesized the groan of an Egyptian mummy seems not merely cheap but disturbing.
Also seen in this light, the ethics statements in the original study seem shallow. Rather than an attempt to grapple with difficult topics, they read as the selective use of information about mummies to justify a decision already made to carry out the research. “Nesyamun’s own words express his desire to ‘speak again’,” the study’s authors insist. In reality, this desire was about speaking in the ancient Egyptian vision of the afterlife, not anything like a vocal reconstruction for the study of scholars or the entertainment of the public. If we really care about the desires of long-dead Egyptians, then we might consider that Nesyamun would have wanted to remain wrapped up and treated like a god (as historian Christina Riggs suggests) — not having his insides bared for all by CT scan, reminding us of his humanity.
But should we care about the wishes of ancient Egyptians? To me, the answer isn’t clear. Perhaps it depends upon the wishes of descendant communities. Certainly for Native American bodies we would not tolerate such cavalier treatment of ethics, or such sensationalism. Over the last few decades, especially since the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, museums and other institutions have worked with Native American tribes to treat the remains of their deceased ancestors more respectfully. Does it matter if modern Egyptians might be as offended as present-day Native Americans? There is little sign in the study or in the coverage that the researchers and journalists really thought to ask. Whatever the answers to these questions, I think we are well past due to consider them.