At 23, Matthew McCauley, a longhaired musician with no college education, excavated the Great Sphinx ... and that’s just the tip of the pyramid 

The Most Interesting Man in Nashville?

The Most Interesting Man in Nashville?

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Edgar Cayce and Sphinxes aside, Matthew McCauley was first and foremost a musician.

Born in 1954 in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, McCauley came into a family that had curiosity and adventure practically hardwired into its DNA. His great-grandfather, also named Matthew McCauley, arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1880s after a 21-day ox-cart ride, and his ensuing experiences could have provided material for a few good Deadwood episodes. The town had no law enforcement agency, and claim jumping was rampant, so some of the town's citizens formed the "Protective Association" to restore law and order. As captain, they elected Matthew McCauley. As legend has it, when one scalawag brandishing a pair of revolvers refused to leave, McCauley and his men knocked his shack off its foundation and sent it hurtling down the riverbank. McCauley became Edmonton's first mayor in 1892, and went on to serve in legislative assemblies of both the Northwest Territories and Alberta.

Things were just as colorful on the other side of Matthew's family. His maternal grandfather, Leslie McFarlane, was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and most famously, author of the first 19 Hardy Boys books, under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. (Some sources suggest he may have written as many as 29.) With Hardy Boys book sales estimated at more than 70 million copies, that must have produced a nice payday, right?

"He got paid a $100-per-book buyout," McCauley says. "It exploded after he'd finished writing them. That was good money then."

McCauley got his start in music working with his father, a successful composer and conductor who provided scores for Canadian TV shows and more than 125 films. As director of a concert hall, the elder McCauley introduced his young son to stars such Harry Belafonte and the Carpenters.

"My dad had a doctorate from the Eastman School," McCauley says. "So while I was growing up I learned about writing music and arranging and orchestrating. ... I was doing TV scoring under his tutelage when I was in high school."

During his teen years, McCauley became friends with another budding musician. His name was Dan Hill.

"I guess we were about 12 when we met," Hill says. "We lived just a few streets apart. ... There weren't too many people I could find that were really fascinated with creating music. ... I was very, very lucky to find Matt, because he was just so inspiring, so bright, so ahead of the curve."

A few years later, Hill brought another budding studio talent, Fred Mollin, into the mix. A musical union was born. As Mollin tells it, the three men first started working together when Hill asked him to produce a demo.

"We met at this little place called Captain Audio in Toronto," says Mollin, who, like McCauley, eventually wound up living in Nashville. "Already there was someone there besides the engineer. He had a lot of hair — really long hair. He had a beard and a mustache. Young guy. I'm looking at him going, 'Who is this guy? Why is he here?'

"And he was there because Dan had done something clever. He created a blind date, a creative blind date, for Matt and me, because he felt we'd be a powerful team."

In the same way that McCauley and Lehner had become kindred spirits in the world of Egyptology, McCauley and Mollin would become kindred spirits in the musical world. The duo produced Hill's self-titled debut in 1975, when they were all just 21, and Hill's second album, Hold On, the following year.

But it was Hill's third effort, Longer Fuse, that would prove a career-defining moment for everyone involved. Released in 1977, the album featured the lead-off track "Sometimes When We Touch," a heart-on-sleeve tale of young romance that Hill had co-written with legendary songwriter Barry Mann. In addition to co-producing, McCauley provided the arrangement. It would become one of the most revered (and mocked) love songs of all time.

Revered: No Hit Sounds of the '70s infomercial is complete without a wet-eyed couple canoodling by a soft-focus fireplace while Hill croons how "the honesty's too much." Mocked: "Sometimes When We Touch" has earned a spot on many "worst song" lists. On AOL Radio's "100 Worst Songs Ever" list, it came in at No. 40, and music journalist Matthew Wilkening has an explanation: "There isn't enough room to run down the oversharing, self-mythologizing and total sissy-ness displayed here."

Even the singer himself is conflicted about the song. In an entertaining and very personal 2010 story in the Canadian weekly MacLean's, Hill offered an unflinching examination of the legacy of "Sometimes When We Touch," which he began writing as a smitten 19-year-old trying to win over a girl. Among his observations:

I've long ago grown more than a little weary of my signature hit — its lyrics now about as relevant to me as a poem or diary entry a teenager might have scrawled out in high school — and its refusal to go gently into that good night. ... Men who at first loathed my song went on to despise it — and me — with a passion that crossed into something else, something deeper. As if by singing in that breathy, vulnerable voice, "I wanna hold you till I die, till we both break down and cry," laying down my palpable "unmanliness" and braying insecurity for millions to hear, I had breached some unspoken male code — and, in doing so, tainted all men by association. ... "Sometimes" grew inexplicably larger, more iconic, with the passing of time. That goddamned song not only changed my life, it came perilously close to defining it.

McCauley laughs when asked about the song's mixed legacy. "[It] was a kind of pop sonar device," he says. "The echo that bounced back from each person could reveal something hidden beneath the surface: a romantic, a cynic and everything in between. There were a lot of people who wouldn't admit that they'd sing along to it."

Whether it made you want to make out or throw up, however, it made its makers a fortune. McCauley and his family had invested in Hill's career from the start: "They paid for my first album," Hill says. What's more, the family music company, started by McCauley's father, owns the masters to "Sometimes When We Touch," as well as the publishing rights to Hill's half of the writing credit. The song has become a hallmark of the love-ballad canon, and has been recorded by everyone from Barry Manilow, Engelbert Humperdinck and Donny Osmond to Tammy Wynette, Rod Stewart and Tina Turner. Suffice to say the hit song provided significant financial rewards and a certain cachet for its 23-year-old co-producer and arranger.

But while the song was making lovers swoon and others groan, in 1977, McCauley had bigger fish to fry, 6,000 miles away on the cusp of the Sahara.


So how exactly do two twentysomething upstarts from North America — inspired by an alleged psychic's outrageous prediction, no less — manage to get permission to dig out the Great Sphinx of Giza? Like many of history's watershed moments, it involved a lot of determination. And a little bit of luck.

"We had a very fortunate coincidence," McCauley says. "The archaeology inspector for the Egyptian government at that time was a guy named Zahi Hawass."

Though Hawass didn't share McCauley and Lehner's interest in Edgar Cayce, he respected their intelligence and drive, and the three men became friends. "As we advanced our little project," McCauley says, "Zahi was actually rising in the echelons of archaeology. So he would grant us sort of incremental permissions to do things." Hawass eventually rose as high as Egypt's minister of state for antiquities affairs.

In late 1977, the excavation of the Sphinx began. "As a result of a series of fortuitous circumstances (and some youthful perseverance), we were actually able to fund and carry out three events concurrently," McCauley says. "First, a full-scale physical clearing of the Sphinx. Second, a remote sensing study, performed by Stanford Research Institute. And third, drilling under the Sphinx, performed by a company called Recovery Systems International.

"We had something in the range of 100 workers with baskets clearing sand (this was the traditional method), and once the site was cleared, SRI began remote sensing. There was one anomaly identified that was particularly tantalizing: an apparent cavity under the right paw. With proper permissions in place, RSI (Recovery Systems) set up their equipment to drill."

For McCauley and Lehner, two men brought together by their mutual fascination with the prophecy of Edgar Cayce, the moment of truth had arrived.

"There was great anticipation as they pierced the cavity," McCauley says, "and a special camera was lowered into the space, revealing ..."

drum roll, please

"... a natural rock fissure. And no library."

Bust. Though the revelation (or lack thereof) proved disappointing, it was a pivotal moment in their lives. "We both thought, OK, we better do this a different way," McCauley says. "We better gather our evidence first, and then build a story around it, rather than having a story and looking for evidence to fit.

"It was the turning point for me — the RSI drill being the metaphoric nail in an ideological coffin. So at 23, my interest veered sharply away from the metaphysical, toward what has become a lifelong interest in advancing science."

Turning point indeed. As their taste for divine prophecy soured, McCauley and Lehner's hunger for scientific discovery deepened. They continued to explore the origins of the Sphinx and the surrounding pyramids over the next few years. In the mid-'80s, they decided to map the entire Giza Plateau — the Sphinx, all three pyramids, the quarries where the stone came from.

According to Lehner, that's when McCauley came up with the idea of incorporating the operation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. And thus Ancient Egypt Research Associates was born. The two men co-founded AERA in 1985 at the Harvard Semitic Museum, where it was headquartered for many years. They now have an office in Boston and their own building on the Giza Plateau by the pyramids, and they've been carrying out excavations at Giza nearly every year since.

AERA's greatest accomplishment has been the excavation of the Lost City of the Pyramids. As Lehner describes it, the Lost City was essentially the company town for the pyramid builders. "No one had thought much about where the company town should be," he says. "The pyramids, Sphinx and surrounding tombs and temples were approached as a kind of art-historical site, kind of like an outdoor museum."

But to build these ancient skyscrapers, there must have been housing or accommodations for tens of thousands of people. Where did they live? How were they housed? How were they fed?

So AERA approached the plateau as an anthropological site. Between 1999 and 2002, in what Lehner describes as an archaeological marathon, AERA discovered and salvaged much of the footprint of the Lost City — an area comprising roughly 7 hectares (a little more than 17 acres). The central features are several long, narrow galleries that they think were barracks for workers or a royal guard force. Lehner says the project wouldn't have been possible without the involvement of McCauley and several other key supporters.

The picture of early Egyptian civilization painted by AERA's findings at the Lost City is far too complex to outline here. (A detailed explanation and map can be found at the organization's website, aeraweb.org.) But Lehner evocatively sums up the scene in a single sentence: "It must have been a real Cecil B. DeMille epic!"

For the last 10 years or so, AERA has been running a field school on the Giza Plateau. "We work with Egyptian students who are coming up through the ranks," McCauley says. "We have become an institution there. A lot of Egyptians are involved. We have hundreds of people who've gone through our program who now represent much of the hierarchy of archaeology in Egypt."

In addition to fostering goodwill with their Egyptian hosts, the school provides an essential resource: trained workers. "Three years ago we had over 200 people working on our project," McCauley says.

In addition to running AERA, Lehner has gone on to become one of the world's foremost experts on Egyptology. If you've seen any NOVA or National Geographic specials on the pyramids, you've likely seen him.

McCauley remains active on the board, and still gets to Egypt on occasion, though not as frequently as he used to. As always seems to be the case, he's got several pans on the fire.

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