Review: Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay

Motel of the Mysteries - David Macaulay

Sometime in junior high or high school I bumped into Motel of the Mysteries in a library. And while I'm not sure it changed my life, it intrigued me like crazy, because other kids that I talked to weren't sure if it was real or not. The text seemed to imply that this was all true, sort of. (I don't think any of us were reading it carefully enough.)(Also stay tuned, there will be quotes) It's as if there was a mash up of In Search Of, the story of the King Tut Excavation/Discovery, and those tv shows about Modern Well Known Cities Envisioned As Ruins. With an odd reference to ancient aliens tossed in.


The book was published in 1979, which was during the time that the King Tut exhibit/tour came to the US (1972-1981). Egypt-mania was all over the place, as were documentaries about archeology. We couldn't get tickets to the tour after traveling to the nearest city where it stopped (it sold out), but I did get a cool hologram necklace of the golden burial mask. (I no longer have it thanks to a house theft. I'm still bummed. I'm sure I could get another online if I went looking - but it was also really tacky fake gold, so, no. Plus I still have my mood ring, so I'm set for faddish jewelry of the 70s.)


The author and artist of the book is David Macaulay - and while Motel came out two years after his well received (among us kids in the library, and the Caldecott people) book Castle, he wasn't as well known then as he was after 1988's The Way Things Work.


Opening illustration:



So the story of Motel: archeologists stumble on an ancient ruin, and believe they're on to Something Big. They then try to piece together the story of what this ancient ruin once was. The answer is of course in the book's title, not that the archeologists figure that out.


We learn the story of the discovery, work at the dig site and lab, and finally the museum exhibitions. And final "on site reenactments". The last part of the book - The Treasures - is full of the items found with a detailed descriptions - similar to what you'd see on a museum display card. And then: "Souvenirs and Quality Reproductions" - in other words, things you can buy in the gift store. (I'm still amused by the Coffee Set.)


There are tons of inside jokes. Like the name of the Motel (in the previous image), but also more subtle references. An easy example: the lead archeologist is Howard Carson. One of the archeologists to discover the tomb of King Tut was Howard Carter. But here's a more obscure(ish) one - a visual reference to archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. There's a famous photo (illustration?) of Schliemann's wife Sophia wearing jewelry from what Schliemann called "Priam's Treasure" (which he snagged and took home without permission) - which you can see here. And then in Motel, there's this illustration of Carson's girlfriend and fellow archeologist (Harriet) wearing their finds from the Motel excavation, in the manner in which they believed the past inhabitants would have worn them:



Page 32:

 "...Wearing the Ceremonial Head Dress (No. 8), it had been placed in a highly polished white sarcophagus (No. 9), which had in turn been sealed behind an exquisite and elaborately hung translucent curtain (No. 10)."

and on page 36:

"...Not surprisingly, Harriet, too, began to feel the strain. In her only recorded outburst, she kicked her way into the lab and insisted that she be allowed to wear some of the priceless treasures. Carson, who was recording what appeared to be impact marks on the top and sides of the altar, realized the urgency of the situation and gave in. For the remainder of the day, Harriet proudly strode around the site wearing the Sacred Collar and matching Headband. She also wore the magnificent plasticus ear ornaments and the exquisite silver chain and pendant."

The toilet is referred to as the Sacred Urn, while the television is dubbed The Great Altar. I'll leave the rest of the misinterpretation fun to the reader. You could see all this being a joke amongst members of archeology and/or sociology departments (though only resulting in mild laughter). 


Here's the illustration (I mistyped "photo" which shows you how much of 13 year old me loved rereading all this) that really hooked me in:



It had a skeleton, a detailed crime/excavation scene with everything neatly numbered (and text explaining things), and the weirdness was all over the place. I loved it, even as the faux science confused me somewhat. (As a kid I always did believe things too easily. For some time I believed my father's story that mom was a mermaid and that we couldn't go on vacations to states that weren't landlocked because she might return to her people if we were too near an ocean. Granted, I was a little kid then, but still.)(I have loads of other Things My Father Told Me stories too.)


Before I dive into tons of quotes - here's where you too may peruse the Motel of the Mysteries, thanks to Open Library:


Motel of the Mysteries


It's only 95 pages, so it's a quick read. And I might have talked it up a bit much, so don't expect to be stunned with its greatness or the humor. It's more of a slightly academic joke, and the story would be dull without the art. But it's a terribly fun idea, and you can tell Macaulay enjoyed putting it together.


Number of stars given was totally dictated by 13 year old me, who loved anything with skeletons and weirdness. Which I completely agree with.




First page, in all caps:


"In 1985 a cataclysmic coincidence of previously unknown proportion extinguished virtually all forms of life on the North American continent."


Next page:


"On the morning of November 29, an accidental reduction in postal rates on a substance called third- and fourth-class mail literally buried North Americans under tons of brochures, fliers, and small containers called free.

That afternoon, impurities that had apparently hung unnoticed in the air for centuries finally succumbed to the force of gravity and collapsed on what was left of an already stunned population."


Next page, black with white letters:


"In less than a day, the most advanced civilization of the ancient world had perished."


And then we go to the title page.


page 10, with a drawing of an overhead view of highways and roads, including highway "cloverleaf":

 "...Evidence unearthed at several widely scattered sites indicates that the entire continent was covered by a complex network of grey and black stripes. Until the development of high-altitude infrared draftmanship, the intricacy of this network was unknown. Because the various patterns can only be fully appreciated from the air, the German scholar Heinrich Von Hooligan believes the stripes were planned either as landing strips for extraterrestrial craft or as coded messages from the inhabitants of the continent to their many powerful gods."

page 27, opening the door to the Motel of the Mysteries room, er I mean Tomb 26:

"...At first everything was dark. Carson lit a match. Still everything was dark. Carson lit two matches. Still, everything was dark. Attempting to avoid a rather protracted delay, Harriet eased the large spotlight toward the entrance with her foot. As the blanket of darkness was stripped away from the treasures within the tomb, Carson's mouth fell open. Everywhere was the glint of plastic. Impatiently the others waited for a response.


"Can you see anything, Howard?" they asked in unison.

"Yes," he replied... "WONDERFUL THINGS!" 


Which is what Howard Carter is supposed to have said upon looking into Tut's tomb.


page 30, one of many hints that our hero isn't working as hard at his job as others are:


" the time he had found the entrance to what eventually became known as the Inner Chamber, Harriet had already cataloged and numbered it."