Creative Archeology: Motel of the Mysteries

When I was a child, I loved the story of archeologist Howard Carter uncovering King Tut’s tomb. I could easily envision his face as he first peered within and glimpsed the treasures inside, exclaiming that he saw “Things, wonderful things!” These words are echoed by fictional archeologist Howard Carson in David Macaulay’s 1979 book, Motel of the Mysteries. I feel confident that as a young lover of archeology I would have loved the book—certainly my students have.  The story begins like this:

It is the year 4022, and the entire ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985. Howard Carson, an amateur archeologist, is crossing the perimeter of an abandoned excavation site when he feels the ground give way beneath him. Suddenly, he finds himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, is clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber.

 Carson, we come to understand, has landed in a 1979 era motel that he interprets as a burial chamber. His interpretations of the various objects in the room are shaped by that assumption, and invariably wrong. Not surprisingly, some of my students’ biggest chuckles come when Carson enters the second room and discovers the “sacred urn” and remains lying in a porcelain sarcophagus. Motel of the Mysteries can be interpreted on many levels.  It is an example of the imperfect nature of history and archeology and the interpretation needed to understand the past. It is a spoof of Howard Carter and the American tendency to self-importance. Because the book is more than forty years old, it can even post some historical challenges for today’s younger readers. How many of them will recognize the rotary phone?

Despite its age, Motel of the Mysteries has much to offer 21st century young people. Perhaps you have children or students who would enjoy exploring its mysteries, assumptions, and erroneous conclusions. You might challenge them to imagine how Howard Carson might interpret a room in your house or school, perhaps even creating imaginative labels for the “artifacts.” Older young people might consider how they’d feel if they or someone they cared about had been the individuals discovered in the ill-fated motel. How would they feel about being part of a museum display? What would they want Carson to do with his discoveries?

Motel of the Mysteries can be the subject of school curriculum (and you can easily find such things online) or a rainy summer day at home. And if it leads to studying the real Howard Carter, and some current archeological dilemmas, so much the better.

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