Why Matt Damon is the best historical archaeologist in the universe 2

Mark Watney: historical archaeologist or site looterI just got done watching “The Martian” and, seeing how I’m a Matt Damon fan already, I liked it. But, then again, I pretty much always like any science-based movies depicting humans colonizing other planets (especially Mars).

As an archaeologist, it’s not hard for me to ponder the future of the human race based on our past. Throughout human history, what evidence do we have for human cultures being moderate in their use of natural resources? When have we ever curbed our appetite for consumption BEFORE there was a cataclysmic environmental degradation caused us to enter a “Classic Period” (i.e. the apex of achievement preceding widespread cultural decline)?

Humans are always pushing the limits of our world. We always pay the price. To me the answer is simple: Start colonizing space so we can bring even more resources back to our planet. We are uniquely blessed with the skills necessary to colonize space. All we need is a monetary or altruistic reason. Think North American colonies during the 15th and 16th century.

I knew The Martian was going to be a good space movie, but I was totally unprepared to witness Matt Damon’s archaeological prowess while he was in the midst of fighting for his own survival.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s what The Martian is about:

Behold, the dawn of historical archaeology on Mars

I know what you’re thinking. “The Martian is about being stranded on Mars. There’s never been a human civilization on Mars, or any other civilization for that matter. So, how does Matt Damon’s character (Mark Watney) find an archaeological site to excavate on that planet?”

I don’t want to spoil the whole movie, but at a certain point, Watney attempts to re-establish communication with Earth. The communications system on his habitation pod have been destroyed, so he is left with plenty of alone time to figure out some other way to figure out a device with the capacity to call home. Rather than attempting to rebuild his habitation pod’s communications tower, Watney decides to make a run for the landing site of the 1996 Pathfinder probe. It is unclear how far into the future this mission takes place, but Pathfinder is still functional when he gets there which suggests it wasn’t too distant because the machine is still functional.

(FYI: He makes no attempt to find the Viking, Sojourner, Curiosity, or any of the devices left on Mars from other missions. The movie makes to attempt to demonstrate, for instance, that the radio from Viking I was still operational. We are left to wonder why Pathfinder was the preferred choice in yet another space movie [Val Kilmer cannibalized Pathfinder in the 2000 sci-fi film “Red Planet”]).

In order to transform Pathfinder into something he can use, Watney is forced to draw upon the nascient Martian craft of historical archaeology. Here are some of the hallmarks of hisarch in space:

The use of historical data to position excavation units—Using an old digital map of the Martian surface, Watney identifies the probable location of the Pathfinder landing site. The lack of communication with the Blue Planet means he has to triangulate Pathfinder’s position and calculate a pathway using a ruler and stylus. It’s the perfect mix of historical data, basic land navigation methods, and new technology to position an excavation on the landscape.

(For some reason, these coordinates are not already loaded in the central computer of his habitation pod. We aren’t supposed to ask why. It’s Hollywood people. Use your suspension of disbelief.)

The use of hand tools to excavate the site—Pathfinder is buried under about 20—40 centimeters of Martian sediments. Watney uses a flat shovel to remove the overburden in order to reach the desired depth because his Martian rover isn’t equipped with a flat backhoe blade and he doesn’t have a Marshalltown.

He removes the artifact to a place where it can be studied in greater detail—True to the tenets of Martian historical archaeology, Watney diligently removes Pathfinder from the ground and takes it back to his habitation pod for further analysis. What’s the equation? For every hour spent in the field you should expect to spend at least 2 hours in the lab? Or, is it 3 hours in the lab? Watney spends multiple days on this one artifact. Now that’s dedication.

Archaeology starts off paperless on Mars— This probably has a lot to do with the fact that there are no trees on Mars, paper is heavy and requires additional fuel to get it off Earth, and is flammable creating a fire hazard unacceptable to NASA. Watney had no choice but to use a computer. Nevertheless, Martian archaeology is paperless from the beginning. End of story.

Martian historical archaeology is still the study of human pasts— Forget the xenoarchaeology in “Prometheus” or “Stargate’s” focus on the search for alien life from artifacts found on Earth. Martian historical archaeology is the search for past human activity on Mars. Watney isn’t looking for alien life. He’s doing the work of an archaeologist, which means looking for human trash thrown away in the past in order to make better-informed decisions in the present.

(In the novel, “The Martian”, Watney is marooned in 2035 meaning the Pathfinder isn’t technically old enough to qualify as an archaeological site unless you apply the NHPA exception for memorable sites that are less than 50 years old. Since there are only a few Mars landing sites, I’d wager every single one of them qualifies for that exception. Then again, I didn’t make the rules on historic preservation for Mars. I’m not an expert on Martian archaeology. Matt Damon is.)

The excavation of the Pathfinder site by Mark Watney in The Martian is the best example of historical archaeology on Mars. There are other examples of space archaeology—“2010: The Year We Make Contact” and “Prometheus” immediately come to mind—but this is all we’ve got for Mars.

Apparently, archaeology on Mars is done differently

Because it was the first historical archaeological excavation on the Red Planet and it was conducted under duress, Watney makes a lot of mistakes. Here are some of the things he did wrong:

Lack of documentation— This is probably the biggest no-no for archaeology and the biggest fear of the folks who are against paperless archaeology. Watney takes no notes of his find. The movie doesn’t show him taking any pictures either, but his space suit was equipped with a GoPro so it is likely that the entire dig was recorded for later viewing. Nevertheless, the movie never shows Watney documenting stratigraphy, provenience, or his excavation methods. He also makes note of the stuff he did to Pathfinder after bringing it back to his habitation pod.

Bad form, Mark Watney. Bad form.

No effort to curate the artifacts—Even though Watney takes the archaeological materials back to his habitation pod for study, he immediately starts taking Pathfinder apart. He turns one artifact into a bunch of smaller artifacts with no consideration of how this will affect the statistics of his artifact analysis. Also, he makes no effort to create a curation facility for his find inside the habitation pod. How are future archaeos on Mars going to be able to use this collection?

His excavation units were pretty sloppy—I know he was digging in the loosest sediment in the universe, but Watney makes no attempt to provide control points for his excavations. This is partially due to the fact that he isn’t interested in documenting the find or the fact that he didn’t care about context. Also, he was more interested in radioing back to Earth to get some supplies than digging a high-and-tight 2×2.

Artifacts were more important than context—This is perhaps the biggest weakness in Martian historical archaeological methods. Watney’s goal was to get the artifacts out of the ground. He didn’t care at all about the context in which the items were recovered, which is a complete violation of archaeological method and theory on Earth.

Maybe archaeological ethics are different on Mars

Matt Damon’s character is the best archaeologist on Mars pretty much because he’s the only archaeologist on Mars. He does a reasonable good job considering he’s not even an archaeologist but an astronaut/botanist that is forced to use historical archaeological methods to achieve the goal of staying alive. It’s pretty clear that this survival motive is more important than doing a proper job of excavating the site.

(If we want to get REEEEEELY technical, Matt Damon didn’t even go to Mars to see how archaeology works up there and Mark Watney isn’t even a real human being. Again, suspend disbelief.)

Ethical fieldwork is important for archaeology, but, as one former CRM archaeology boss I worked under used to say; “No site’s worth dying over.” Watney did what he had to in order to recover the artifact that would save his life. It’s easier to overlook his shortcomings as an avocational as long as we remember that he was fighting for his life instead of for a paycheck.

Archaeology on Earth didn’t start out as the precise, ethical endeavor we know today. Many of the earliest archaeologists were obsessed with finding lost cities and digging up valuable artifacts for sale to museums (Heinrich Schliemann anyone?) We only got to where we are today after committing so many faux pas, sins, and crimes that we’ve lost count.

Ethics remain somewhat subjective today. We’ve all learned the SHA, SAA, and AIA codes of ethics but if you do archaeology long enough you’re going to hear or see archaeologists violate some of those tenets at some point or another. I’ve heard dozens of stories of cultural resource management companies hogging out artifacts before the project runs out of time and money or both. I’ve also heard of projects where notetaking was thrown to the wayside by supervisors who didn’t value this activity only for it to come back and bite them in the end. Is this unethical or a necessity? Or, is it simply how some archaeologists do business?

Doesn’t matter what I think. It only matters what you’ll do when the chance to cut corners comes up on your next project.

The Martian is a great story of survival against incredible odds. Tangentially, it also includes a demonstration of the budding field of Martian historical archaeology. I know Ridley Scott and Matt Damon didn’t mean to create an archaeology adventure movie but it happened. Matt Damon’s struggle to survive on the inhospitable Red Planet in the movie The Martian while also conducting the planet’s first archaeological dig is why I say he is the greatest historical archaeologist in the universe.

What do you think? Is Matt Damon/Mark Whatney a budding archaeologist or looter?

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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2 thoughts on “Why Matt Damon is the best historical archaeologist in the universe

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      I forgot about the fact that the year is longer on Mars. We’d better measure it in Earth years though since The Martian takes place in 2035 of the Earth calendar. That means Pathfinder would only be about 21 Martian years old and 39 Earth years old.

      That also means it would take 94 Earth years for a site to meet the 50-year threshold on Mars. I guess CRM would work differently on Mars.

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