We don’t know what we don’t know

By Karen Zautyk

Of late, I have come across a bunch of TV shows and news stories regarding recent revisions in prior, long-held conclusions based on archaeological research. New excavations and modern science have combined to make historians question what we thought we knew about ancient civilizations.

Examples:

“Unknown Monumental Palace Rewrites Ancient Greek History” (Haaretz.com, Jan. 30. 2017).

“Archaeologists Rethink the Early Civilizations of the Amazon” (Archaeology magazine, June 12, 2017)3

“Archaeologists Unearth Ancient, Forgotten City in Eastern Ethiopia” —  a “discovery (that) revolutionizes our understanding of trade” in that region. (The Telegraph, U.K., June 19, 2017).

Are you yawning yet? Don’t. This column deals not with (literally) dusty history, but with a certain work of fiction that, nearly four decades after its 1979 publication, can still make me LOL.

I hadn’t even thought about it in all that time, but apparently it had wormed its way into the depths of my brain, for, while watching a TV program about arguments over historical research, its title suddenly popped into my head: “Motel of the Mysteries.”

I moused on over to Amazon, ordered a copy and have been LOLing all over again. It is a brilliant parody of scholarly “expertise” and how readily fiction can be defined — and accepted — as fact.

Written and illustrated by David Macaulay, the book is set in the year 4022, when an amateur archaeologist, Howard Carson, happens upon a buried 20th-century structure in what had been a nation called Usa.

The entire population of Usa, and of the rest of the North America, was destroyed in a 1985 cataclysm that 41st-century historians attributed, in part, to “an accidental reduction in postal rates.” (Remember, in the mid-20th century, people still used snail mail. Which was not actually delivered by snails.)

As is obvious from the title, what Carson has discovered is a motel, but he proceeds to hilariously misinterpret everything in and about it, along with the “Yank” civilization that produced it. No way will I detail all the analyses (read the book!), but I shall share one to give you a taste.

One illustration offers an aerial view of the fully excavated building, and I noticed several 20th-century autos in the motel parking lot. Carson had not yet mentioned these, and I wondered what his explanation would be. It came a few pages later:

In a “vast, flat area marked with parallel white lines … stood freely interpreted metal sculptures of animals.” These were inscribed with the names of each creature: Cougar, Skylark, Thunderbird, etc. “The importance of animal worship in Yank burial customs has never been more clearly illustrated.”

Those of you familiar with actual archaeology might notice the similarity between Howard Carson’s name and that of Howard Carter, who made a revolutionary discovery in Egypt in 1922. Yours truly was sharp enough to catch that connection, but something else eluded me.

During his dig, Carson eventually uncovers the Great Sign atop the building, which bears the name: Toot ‘n’ C’mon Motel.

It was only as I was falling asleep, hours after reading the book, that the stunning realization jolted me awake.  How could I have missed it?

Tut, tut, Karen. Tut, tut.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent