Motel of the Mysteries

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


David Macaulay is an author and illustrator who has written many interesting books. One of my favorites is Motel of the Mysteries, published in 1979 by Houghton Mifflin (Boston). The book is now out of print, so I always look for a copy at yard sales and flea markets—and every once in a while I’m lucky enough to find one!

The publisher’s blurb about Motel says:

It is the year 4022; all of the ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985. Imagine, then, the excitement that Howard Carson, an amateur archeologist at best, experienced when in crossing the perimeter of an abandoned excavation site he felt the ground give way beneath him and found himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, was clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber. Carson’s incredible discoveries, including the remains of two bodies, one of then on a ceremonial bed facing an altar that appeared to be a means of communicating with the Gods and the other lying in a porcelain sarcophagus in the Inner Chamber, permitted him to piece together the whole fabric of that extraordinary civilization.

Thus, Macaulay imagines being an adventurer in the future, when civilization had been destroyed by being overrun with junk mail—remember, the book was written before there was internet spam! So, in the book, Howard is trying to understand the ruined walls and other architecture he finds. Can you guess what the “porcelain sarcophagus” is?

Howard is an intrepid explorer, and he is certain, based on the architecture and artifacts he finds, that he has found funerary architecture. In his eyes, he is seeing special ceremonial buildings complete with burial goods distributed in separate chambers, similar to the archaeological remains we see today that survive from ancient Egypt.


As you might guess from the title of the book, what Howard had found were the decrepit remains of a modest, twentieth-century, highway-side motel somewhere in this country. His interpretations of the remains are erroneous in extremely funny ways.

This book leads the reader to think about the processes of scientific thinking, and how scientists assemble a wide variety of data to attempt to understand complex systems and situations. Sometimes, theories are developed based on what turn out to be scanty data. Thus, the theories turn out to be wrong, sometimes in humorous ways, when more data are collected.

You may also be interested in other volumes by Macauley, such as Cathedral (1973), Pyramid (1975), Underground (1976), and Castle (1977). All have been reprinted in paperback. Macauley is probably most famous for his award-winning international bestseller The Way Things Work (1988), which he later expanded, updated, and renamed The New Way Things Work (1998).