Literature: Motel of the Mysteries

Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay is a lavishly illustrated book about Howard Carson, a future archaeologist who stumbles upon an extraordinarily well-preserved ancient tomb — or so he thinks. Actually, it's a 20th-century hotel room.


Tropes featured include:

  • All Hail the Great God Mickey!: Items recovered include the Great Altar (the television) and the Sacred Urn (the toilet); the general assumption of all the future archaeologists is that everything they find has some religious significance.

    This is something of a Truth in Television, as archaeologists have a tendency to use "ritual" as shorthand for "something we can't immediately explain." The most egregious recent example is probably the discovery that ancient Egyptians used wet sand to move massive stones, because scholars assumed that a mural that actually shows a worker pouring water in front of one such stone was depicting some sort of religious ceremony instead of a practical construction technique.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Parodied. The book's discussion of freeways could be taken, practically word-for-word, from a present-day von Dänikenite's description of the Nazca lines.
  • Apocalypse How: The complete burial of North America in junk mail and suddenly-solidified pollution, ranking somewhere between Regional and Planetary Social Destruction.
  • Brick Joke: An illustration shows Howard Carson entertaining his fellow researchers on the dig by making shadow puppets in a spotlight. Thirty pages later or so, the text tells us that he did the same thing for an appreciative crowd on opening day at The Museum.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander:
    • Aside from coming to mistaken conclusions about everything they find, Howard Carson and Harriet Burton are people of extremely bizarre habits of mind.
      • When the door of the "tomb" is first opened, Howard begins lighting matches but is unable to see anything — Harriet has to remind him of the electric spotlight standing only a few feet away.
      • By the time Howard finds the door to the "inner chamber" (read: "bathroom"), Harriet has already numbered and catalogued it, thinking it to be another wall decoration.
      • When the dig at the motel slows down, Howard begins suffering from extremely bizarre nightmares (involving being the only human in a troupe of circus horses) and Harriet demands a chance to wear some of the items of "clothing" they have found.
    • Not that these two are the only such people in the book. When The Museum puts on an exhibition of the recovered items, the official in charge solves the congestion problem by installing a gently sloping floor and giving "a well-oiled pair of roller skates" to every visitor.
  • Curse: Mirroring the legends of cursed Egyptian tombs, everyone who excavates the Motel dies in some strange way. Carson himself is killed by a rabid dromedary; Burton is accidentally electrocuted.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Most of the deductions in the book have some logic behind them. That doesn't mean they're right...
  • Future Imperfect: The entire book runs on this. Most of its humor comes from the contrast between the awestruck tone of the text and the highly mundane illustrations which make it clear just how skewed a view of the 20th century the future archaeologists have.

    Much of this is driven by the fact that the future civilization seems to have retreated to a 19th-century level of technology and has no idea how synthetic materials are made. They are convinced that "The Plants That Would Not Die", as they call them, were grown by some biological process, instead of being made of plastic; fake wood paneling is, by their standards, unbelievably realistic.
  • Generic Name: Used rather ominously. The British Museum (of which we see a picture in the book) is now referred to simply as The Museum, and has a close relationship with a center of learning known only as The University. Which suggests, alarmingly, that they may be the last museum and university remaining on the planet after the cataclysm that destroyed North America.
  • The Merch: In-universe. The last few pages describe the gift shop items sold by The Museum Shop in conjunction with The Museum's Motel exhibit. They include a graffiti-covered section of bathroom wall (available in alabaster or 24-karat gold), a crystal paperweight containing a reproduction of the artificial plant from the hotel corridor, a set of handcrafted marble coasters reproducing the appearance of the cheap acoustic tiles from the "tomb's" ceiling, and so on.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
  • Punny Name: The book was written after Tutankhamen's relics were displayed in the U.S. The hotel's name? The Toot 'n' C'mon.
  • Take That: The narrator passes one on when he mentions that, while the remains of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis are close to the geographical center of the ancient country of Usa, "its geographical placement would have been more accurate had a large portion of the west coast fallen off into the sea, as was predicted and in some areas of the country apparently prayed for."
  • Toilet Humor: The deadpan descriptions of various bathroom items sometimes verge on this.
    • The image of Carson, in full regalia, kneeling before the Sacred Urn has to be seen to be believed.
    • The fact that the occupants' clothes are strewn around the "tomb" instead of hanging off their skeletons (and that one of them is found lying in the bath) is a very subtle hint as to what they had just finished doing when the apocalypse hit.
    • The coffee set inspired by the Sacred Urn.

Alternative Title(s):

Motel Of The Mysteries