Excavating the Future: David Macauley’s ‘Motel of the Mysteries’

Exhibit / December 6, 2017

Object NameMotel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay
Maker and Year: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979
Object Type: Book
Image Source: Exhibit author
Description: (Richard McKenna)

British-born illustrator David Macaulay is best-known for books like Castle and City, where he used his talent for detailed black and white pen and ink drawings to lay bare the mechanics and architecture of his subjects, revealing their inner workings.

In 1979, though, he turned his hand to something altogether different. Motel of the Mysteries, set hundreds of years after the vaguely-explained cataclysm that wiped out all life on the North American continent in 1985 (and which was seemingly due to an environmental chain reaction caused by the accidental lowering of postage rates for third- and fourth-class mail), purports to detail the discovery of a temple complex of the “ancient world” (the motel of the title) and its subsequent excavation and study.

Motel‘s protagonist is Howard Carson, a thinly-veiled satire of Howard Carter, the English archaeologist who first excavated the tomb of Tutankhamun—the motel is in fact called the Toot ‘N’C’Mon—and the book’s main joke (it’s a pretty good one) is the archeologists’ uncritical misinterpretation of the objects they discover in the untouched “tomb 26” (actually room 26), which they take to be religious artifacts used for the decoration of what they have decided is a burial chamber, assigning spurious ritual value to empty bottles of Head and Shoulders or a lavatory cistern. It’s a piss-take, but the point is well made: in the absence of testimony, all this stuff is basically just guesswork and Orientalism informed by contemporary concepts of worth, turning a couple’s boozy weekend in a low-rent motel into something as epic and glorious (and potentially career-defining) as its discoverer wants it to be.

After sections detailing the excavation and the catalog of the subsequent exhibition, where the ephemera of our everyday life is treated with all the reverence we might accord an ancient Roman hairpin or African potsherd, the book also lists the souvenirs available from the gift shop, a pithy riff on the absurdity of such stuff, with tote bags bearing the motel’s wince-inducing pun of a name, bookends fashioned after the point folded into the protruding end of motel toilet paper, and a solid silver coffee pot fashioned after the “sacred urn,” really the toilet bowl in room 26’s bathroom: prestige articles the show’s bien-pensant visitors can use to flaunt their cultural credentials, it is implied.

Yes, Motel of the Mysteries is whimsical and goofy (and perhaps ever so slightly precious), but it’s also a lovely and unexpectedly affecting look at what remains after a civilization’s fleeting moment of dominance has passed, when one culture’s bowling alleys and petrol stations become another’s plinth of Ozymandias.

3 thoughts on “Excavating the Future: David Macauley’s ‘Motel of the Mysteries’

  1. This either sparked a deep memory of seeing this exact book as a kid in some random bookshop (possible), or this is actually part of a sub-genre of illustrator books depicting ‘future archeology’ type themes? I don’t know, I’ve personally never looked into it, but a few examples – Dixon’s After Man and LeGuin’s Always Coming Home come to mind in possibly capturing that early 80’s gestalt of imminent nuclear doom and what it would look like 500 years hence…

    Always Coming Home might not be illustrated, but it did have an accompanying cassette tape of ‘Kesh’ songs – maybe ‘audio illustrated’?

  2. I remember reading this when it came out, or at least an excerpt in Reader’s Digest or someplace. What’s left unsaid is that it sprang from the King Tut mania that enveloped the country during the exhibit’s tour. For another example, see Steve Martin’s iconic foray into popular music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYbavuReVF4. Tut has once again returned to our shores, but without the same level of fanfare.
    “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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