woman looking at pyramids

The Exchange: Royal Blood and Elizabeth Frood discuss pyramids and songwriting research.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together Royal Blood and Prof. Elizabeth Frood.

Royal Blood are an English rock duo formed by Mike Kerr (vocals, bass) and Ben Thatcher (drums) in Brighton in 2011. Their sound is anchored by Kerr’s unique bass playing technique, in which he uses various effects pedals and multiple amps to make his bass guitar sound like a standard electric guitar and bass at the same time. Their self-titled debut album was released in August 2014, with their second album How Did We Get So Dark? following in June 2017, and their third album Typhoons in April 2021.

Elizabeth Frood is a New Zealand-born Egyptologist and academic, who specializes in self-presentation and the study of non-royals. Since 2006, she has been an associate professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford. She’s also been director of its Griffith Institute and is a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.

In 2020 she made her debut as a television presenter for the BBC, with the documentary “Tutankhamun in Colour” broadcast on BBC4. New colorizing techniques were applied to original black and white footage, to explore the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Mike Kerr: I’ve always been curious about the origins of Egyptian pyramids. How did the engineers acquire the knowledge to build them and how did they manage to succeed with the tools that they had at the time?

Elizabeth Frood: I’ve been lucky enough to visit the pyramids at Giza and other pyramid fields a few times and study a bit about their development. Yet I am still awestruck by what feels like their overwhelming impossibility. The technical skills required for the construction of the pyramids, from the manipulation of truly enormous stone blocks to their overall stellar alignments, are incredible, but also completely feasible once the process of work is properly assessed (no aliens!).

It is possible that texts detailing construction practices and calculations were written down and are now lost – only an infinitesimal proportion of what was written in ancient Egypt survives to us.

A recent discovery of the oldest known inscribed papyri even includes a logbook of the transport of stone for the Great Pyramid from a quarry on the Nile’s East bank. But I think it more likely that the necessary engineering knowledge was passed down from father to son, master to apprentice, orally and through learning by doing. We have evidence for how these sorts of apprenticeships worked about 1500 years later, from the village of Deir el-Medina, home to the workers who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

By the time of the building of the Great Pyramid in the mid-third millennium BCE, Egyptian engineers and craftsmen had been working with stone on monumental scales for several generations, and their profound knowledge of different stone types and their properties was still older.

I’ve gained some insight into this by observing stonemasons and conservators at the temple of Karnak where I work. And these teams have modern tools to hand, while the ancient craftsmen worked with stone tools, wooden rollers, and complex rope and pulley systems.

Crucial to the success of the work was manpower, and its careful and probably pretty ruthless organisation. The barracks that housed these crews (who were definitely not slaves), even tombs of some of their supervisors, have been excavated, and they open windows onto their lives. Although the work must have been brutal, the quantity of animal bones recovered indicates they were at least better fed than much of the population. I like to think of this at least when I stand, overwhelmed, at the base of the Great Pyramid. 

Elizabeth Frood: I imagine that the process of creation is different for every song, but I’m curious to know what different sorts of research might be involved in songwriting, both for lyrics and for the music. I’d love to hear about how this has played out in some of your songs.”

Mike Kerr: The lyrics for the title track ‘Typhoons’ was heavily informed by multiple discussions and ideas presented by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris.  Particularly his description of depression being ‘lost in thought’ I found that depiction helpful and inspiring for the song. 

When referencing certain sounds, we also tend to research recording techniques adopted of that certain era in order to have an authentic starting point.

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