Thursday, May 05, 2011

Motel of Mysteries

Motel of Mysteries by David Macaulay

In the year 4022 amateur archaeologist Howard Carson stumbles upon an unparalleled find, an exquisitely preserved chamber of a "funerary complex" that predates the great disaster of 1985. Closely following the work of Carson, Motel of Mysteries tells of that discovery and its aftermath.

By showcasing a truly misguided interpretation of late 20th century America, Motel of Mysteries clearly illustrates the perils involved in studying the past through artifacts.

A sample of Carson's analysis:
Surrounding almost the entire complex was a vast flat area, marked with parallel white lines. In several of the spaces stood freely interpreted metal sculptures of animals. To avoid the misunderstanding that often arises with free interpretation, each sculpture was clearly labeled. They were inscribed with such names as Cougar, Skylark, and Thunderbird, to name but a few. The importance of animal worship in Yank burial customs had never been more clearly illustrated. (40)
Motel of Mysteries is insightful and full of wry humor. As Carson and his compatriots excavate the motel, readers can't help but marvel at the lengths to which they must go to fit individual objects into their erroneous interpretation of the site.

Given the book's 1979 publication date, I suspect Macaulay is primarily poking fun at the archaeology/Egyptology craze spawned by the 1970s The Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit (the motel's name is "Toot'n'C'mon" and there's a curse associated with the excavation). Regardless, Motel of Mysteries is still laugh-out-loud funny 20+ years later.

Motel of Mysteries is a must-read for any student of history, archaeology, or museum studies. We are getting multiple copies for our library.

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