POPULAR CRAZES INEVITABLY engender lampoons, takeoffs and pastiches. Tolkien and Star Wars have bred innumerable imitations -- some reverent, some quite the reverse -- so it is not surprising that even so sedate and scholarly a phenomenon as the Tutankhamen exhibit should inspire tributes of the purportedly humorous variety. Fortunately for the reading public one of the humorists moved to make his contribution is David Macaulay. My sole complaint about this witty and engaging book is its title, which telegraphs the punch line a little too soon.
The fun begins with Macaulay's brief but devastating description of the cataclysm which, overnight, buried the flourishing North American civilization of the 20th century. Two thousand years later tourists view the crumbling remains of the ancients with awe; but not until a gentleman named Howard Carson inadvertently tumbles into the buried shaft of a mysterious underground structure does the world of 4022 A.D. comprehend the true magnificence of the long-dead culture.
Carson immediately identifies the structure as a tomb (what else could it be?), and describes in painstaking detail the religious functions of the cult objects (what else could they be?) so miraculously preserved behind the sealed door. Macaulay's drawings make it clear that Carson must be descended from an ancestor of a similar name; the family resemblance is unmistakable.
Most of the humor can be easily appreciated by anyone at all familiar with the Tutankhamen discovery. There are a few "in" jokes, which may elude the casual reader, such as the sketch of Carson's assistant, Harriet Burton, decked out in the fabulous "jewelry" found in "Tomb 26." By a (no doubt) strange coincidence, this portrait bears a striking resemblance to that of another lady of archaeological leanings wearing the treasure discovered by her husband way back in the 19th century.
In fairness to the reader and the author I will not describe Harriet's "jewelry," or the other exquisite errors perpetuated by Carson, the brilliant amateur (more amateur, alas, than brilliant). But I can't resist one quote, which proves that Macaulay's satire is impartially aimed at archaeological weirdos as well as at the archaeological establishment: "the entire continent was covered by a complex network of gray and black stripes . . . Because the various patterns can only be fully appreciated from the air, the German scholar Heinrich Von Hooligan believes the stripes were planned either as landing strips for extraterrestrial craft or as coded messages from the inhabitants of the continent to their many powerful gods."
Macaulay's superb drawings, familiar to readers of his serious books on architecture, add to the fun. There is joy on every page, but perhaps the most delectable section of the book is the one entitled "Souvenirs and Quality Reproductions," with its full page illustrations of the expensive adaptations of the items found in the tomb -- bookends, tote bags and the like. Only someone like me, who has compulsively collected innumerable impractical imitations of Tutankhamen's tomb equipment, can fully appreciate the charm of this concept.
Successful humor is its own excuse for being. Indeed, it may be more important in the general scheme of things than such solemn matters as higher mathematics, General Motors or even archaeology. In this sense Macaulay's book is a triumph. It serves another function -- as does all satire -- in deflating pomposity and reminding us of our human susceptibility to error. Kathleen Kenyon, the excavator of Jericho and Jerusalem, once wryly remarked that archaeologists tend to label any artifact of unknown function as a "cult object." The Motel of the Mysteries illustrates this specific criticism so neatly that one is inclined to suspect that Macaulay shares Kenyon's opinion. I hope he sells a million copies.