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Motel of the Mysteries, by David Macauley (1979)

Motel of the Mysteries - David Macaulay

I first read this book when I was around 8 or 9 years old. It is a richly descriptive and satirical look at the archaeology/physical anthropology of our present (or the present at the time of publication, 1979) in the distant future. Page by page, future archaeologist Howard Carson uncovers the untouched landscape of an American motel room that was frozen in time after an unforeseen catastrophe in 1985. The world beneath his feet is full of ritual symbolism and he meticulously catalogs the complex geographies of religious significance that he finds. As he pieces together the minute details of this long-defunct civilization, the reader is bemused by his misguided interpretations of everyday items in a typical hotel room invariably classed as exalted ceremonial relics.


The book not only pokes fun at the material culture of mid-century Americans, but speaks to the inherit limits of fields like history and archaeology to make sense of the distant past through its physical artifacts alone. As a kid, I enjoyed this book for its fun descriptions, overt irony and how it challenged the reader to take a new perspective on the objects around us that we take for granted. It really captivated my imagination.


Unbeknownst to my 8-year-old self at the time, I would later go on to pursue a PhD and a career in anthropology. Now with an insider's view of the fields under parody, I find this book even more accurate. Pretty much any objects, artifacts or layouts that archaeologists cannot easily explain are attributed to "ritual purposes" or "the sacred". Religion is the catch-all category for all of the stuff that humans have trouble understanding or accepting. This book teaches us the very important lesson that present-day biases make us all foolhardy in our attempts to matter-of-factly narrate the past. Extend this advice further and it suggests that it is not wise to presume to know the lives of others via a cursory glance clouded by our own preconceptions. And this is a good starting point for understanding the foundations and rationale of anthropology.


In the classroom, this book makes a fantastic exercise for imparting critical thinking skills in a fun and entertaining way. However, I recommend it to readers of all ages. The wonderful illustrations add to its charm and memorability.


Depiction of a woman of Usa in ceremonial dress.