The Real Mystery Behind Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s Archimedes MacGuffin

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This article contains Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny spoilers.

It’s the sequence that either makes or breaks the fifth Indiana Jones flick for you: using a mysterious device composed of gears and arcane numerals, Harrison Ford’s grizzled archaeologist, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s delightful Helena Shaw, and a plane full of Nazis travel backwards in time. Suddenly, a legendary hero and his greatest foes—who already seem themselves a step out of time in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s 1969 setting—become the ultimate anachronisms. They’re veritable 20th century spacemen transported back to a world of Romans and Greeks, swords and sandals.

For his final adventure, our dear Dr. Jones wound up in 212 BC, witnessing the Siege of Syracuse.

In a franchise defined in large part by magic and miracles, it might be the most miraculous sequence yet, which is saying something since the wrath of God was made manifest way back in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The sequence left some cold, but we personally dug it, not least of all because instead of being a MacGuffin made to horrify and menace, “Archimedes’ dial,” as it is called constantly in the film, is a rather graceful capstone on Jones’ life pursuits. Here is a great prize not derived from myths or legends, but rather science and human ingenuity. “It’s math!” as the dastardly Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) intones. It also allows Indy to live ancient history and meet a fellow chaser of knowledge: the astronomer, philosopher, inventor, and, yes, mathematician, Archimedes.

Most intriguing of all though is that while the time travel applications introduced in The Dial of Destiny by screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, as well as director James Mangold, are complete poppycock, Archimedes is very real. As is his alleged dial. In fact, it is largely regarded by scholars as the first computer ever made…

The Real-Life Dial of Destiny

In Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, it is hurriedly mentioned that the dial was discovered off the Greek island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea sometime in the early 1900s, but for most viewers, this is just background noise to explain why Indy must face a new nemesis in eels—the snakes of the ocean! Even so, this bit of exposition is more than just table-setting. The real-life “dial of destiny,” which is usually referred to by academia as the “Antikythera mechanism,” was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers diving near the aforementioned Greek island as part of an expedition with the Hellenic Royal Navy.

Discovered aboard the wreck of an unfortunate Roman cargo ship, the device is believed to date back to the Hellenistic period—when Greece’s influence spread from modern day Italy to Iran—with historians debating whether the device was constructed anywhere between 205 BC and 87 BC . Yet despite that fascinating pedigree, it was more than a hundred years before the Antikythera became one of the most studied and speculated upon artifacts of antiquity.

Comprised of bronze that has become misshapen and turned the color green after two thousand years at the bottom of the sea, it wasn’t until scientists began X-ray imaging the ruined artifact in the 1970s that its implications became clear. X-rays revealed the device to be remarkably modern in construction, with “neat triangular teeth” (as per Smithsonian Magazine) that echoed the internal workings of a mantle clock.

 This is the type of technology the world wouldn’t see again until at least the 17th century AD, and it was designed to do more than just tell the time of day.

Originally made of polished bronze and believed to be built of 37 meshing bronze gears when whole (many of which are now lost or believed to still be at the bottom of the Aegean), this analogue computer was designed to track the sun and moon, the trajectories of the then five known planets, and even keep track of important Greek holidays and festivals (more on that in a bit).

CT Scans performed by scholars at Cardiff University in 2006 further revealed hidden inscriptions within, which suggested circular balls were implemented on its various dials: a silver one to track the moon; a fiery red one for the movements of Mars; and a golden one to follow the sun. Furthermore, two dial systems on its back were used to accurately predict the passage of the cycle of lunar and solar eclipses, with the former built on a Metonic Spiral, meaning it followed the moon’s eclipse cycles across 19-year stretches.

It was the Cardiff scans in 2006 that really began a global fascination with a machine made of gears and metals more advanced than anything the world would see again for another 1500-plus years. Yet the realization that it was the first computer raised another question… who made it?

Did Archimedes Build It?

In Dial of Destiny, it is a foregone conclusion that the ancient polymath Archimedes, who lived in the original city of Syracuse (a Greek colony built in modern day Sicily), constructed the dial for the express purpose of inviting a time traveler to come back in time and break the the Roman siege of his hometown in 212 BC. While that is probably not the case, Archimedes is a plausible suspect for the inventor of the Antikythera device… among others.

In fact, it is the specific Greek festivals the device tracks which might cast doubt on Dial of Destiny’s assertion that Archimedes designed the machine. Most famously, the mechanism was programmed to predict the ancient Olympic games held every four years between 776 BC and sometime in the second century BC. However, these games were celebrated throughout the entire Greek world, which extended across the Mediterranean in this era. Thus the more illuminating celebrations the Antikythera was programmed to announce were the festival of Naa, a celebration held in northwestern Greece, and the festival of Halieia, an event held on the southern island of Rhodes, home of the famed Colossus statue.

Rhodes was likewise the adopted home of the revered ancient philosopher Posidonius, one of the great minds of the first century BC—so much so Roman statesmen and leaders like the mighty Cicero were counted among his admirers. Cicero’s writings are a key reason Posidonius’ name survives today, and some scholars speculate Posidonius (or men in his school) constructed the so-called dial, and it was being shipped from Rhodes to northern Greece as a gift when the ship sank.

However, it is also thanks to Cicero’s prodigious penmanship that many other scholars believe Indiana Jones’ Archimedes built the device. (Fun fact: Cicero’s similarly voluminous political musings against Marc Antony caused the latter to have Cicero assassinated and display his severed hands in the Roman forum.) It is Cicero who tells us that Archimedes developed several bronze devices in the the third century BC that were brought to Rome.

Wrote Cicero, “I had often heard this celestial globe or sphere mentioned on account of the great fame of Archimedes… [and] I felt the Sicilian geometrician must have possessed a genius superior to anything we usually conceive to belong to our nature.”

It also is worth noting that the Antikythera’s tracking of the lunar cycle aligns with a Corinthian map of the heavens, and Syracuse (Archimedes’ home and the climax of Dial of Destiny) was a colony of the Greek state of Corinth.

So did Archimedes also design Indiana Jones’ final MacGuffin? Perhaps. Or perhaps James Mangold and company just thought Archimedes’ story was the most cinematic to adapt for a time travel yarn. Indeed, Archimedes is credited with designing intricate mechanical fire-machines so innovative that they repelled the mighty forces of Rome in 212—a perfect backdrop for a film where a WWII German bomber is mistaken for a dragon (or other Greek deviltry) by Roman centurions. There is also the bitter irony that Archimedes delivered Syracuse (for a time) from Roman rule but was allegedly himself slain by a Roman soldier after the battle was won.

Or, more likely, it just looked pretty strange seeing a guy in a fedora parachute above Roman triremes.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is streaming on Disney+ now.

The post The Real Mystery Behind Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s Archimedes MacGuffin appeared first on Den of Geek.

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