At the recent Monstrous Antiquities conference, I was talking to some of my fellow attendees about fake history and how much I like it. By fake history in this context, I’m referring not to frauds or hoaxes, but to non-narrative works of fiction which purport to be historical documents. I have talked about this before on the blog in my completely gobsmacked post about the fake history book about the Archers that came out.
Sometimes this comes up in a gaming context, I guess because there’s some utility to this kind of document in gaming terms … but not as much as you might think. The classic example is probably Greg Stafford’s masterful King of Sartar, a collection of jumbled and enigmatic letters, sagas and historical texts relating to the life of the possibly mythical Argrath. However, although I’ve personally had a lot of use from this book at the gaming table, I think that the parts that are useful — the backgroundy stuff about Heortling society — and the parts that are compelling — the mysterious debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of the historical Argrath — are almost completely different. However, I’m not here today to talk about Glorantha. You can tell because I have other plans for the evening.
What I do want to talk about is Motel of the Mysteries. This is my shit right here. It’s a 1979 book by David Macaulay about some future archaeologists excavating and interpreting a motel from the “modern” era (and again, you get that thing where you have a modern era which is now 35 years in the past, so even then there’s another weird layer happening). It is told with tongue firmly in cheek and is beautifully illustrated.
Like, check out this reconstruction of one of the burial chambers. Or this image of someone wearing one of the headdresses found at the site:
In order to understand why I love it so much, you have to understand my relationship with the works of David Macaulay. When I was a kid, David Macaulay was producing a lot of great educational works: big, lavishly-illustrated black and white books about the creation of ancient and medieval buildings. There was Castle and Pyramid and Cathedral and so on, and they had lots of cutaway illustrations, which always seemed to exercise a particular fascination for me when I was young.
I love that sort of thing.
Anyway, some of them were also made into a series of programs for PBS, which was the main TV that was watched in young James’s household back in the 80s. Starring Macaulay and Sarah Bullen as themselves, these things combined a little documentary (mainly aimed at younger viewers) with an animated story, often including the voices of notable British character actors. For instance, Castle has Brian Blessed narrating. I think they actually hold up pretty well, but you can judge for yourself!
I’m sure there are some inaccuracies and they’re a bit outdated now, but I still have a lot of love. And I think the mixture of fact and fiction is very effective, much more effective than in most things that try to do it.
Now, most of these postdate Motel of the Mysteries, but I didn’t really encounter them until they were all already out, and then I ran into the historical ones first. Because they were cartoons about the middle ages on PBS in the 80s, obviously; I have probably seen Castle 12 times, and I had the book too. I think the others came from the library. Come to that, I think I checked out the video of Cathedral from the public library on VHS not long after my wife and I started dating, probably slightly perplexing her.
So for me, then, David Macaulay’s art was what historical stuff looked like. And when this weird-ass, mysterious, humorous archaeology thing with such spot-on illustration — which was also kind of a sci-fi story, since obviously it’s set in the future, even if only nominally — swam into my ken, I was hooked.
It sits on my bookshelf even today, and occasionally I just take it out and look at the pictures. Such a strange thing to exist. Well worth taking a look at.