The fifth Indiana Jones revolves around the so-called "Dial of Destiny," a time-twisting device supposedly crafted by the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes. While its time-traveling credentials are pure nonsense, the titular object is based on a genuine archaeological artifact: the Antikythera mechanism.
This remarkable relic was found by sponge divers among a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera in 1901. With its chunky cogs and gears uncrushed in centuries of debris, it looks like something from a steampunk graphic novel.
It was originally recovered as a single lump but has since been divided into three separate components comprising at least 82 parts, including 37 meshing bronze gears. It's thought the device was originally placed inside a wooden box, although this has eroded away long ago.
Significant parts of the device have been lost to the past, but it’s estimated it was about the size of a chunky toaster, around 34 × 18 × 9 centimeters (13.4 × 7.1 × 3.5 inches).
At over 2,000 years old, the relic is the world’s oldest analog computer, capable of predicting the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets as well as eclipses. For well over a century, the object mystified archaeologists as it appeared to rely on knowledge and technology that was well ahead of its time.
To work the machine, a person would turn its crank with their hand to trigger the movement of a series of gears. As the cogs turn, this would move parts of the device to highlight different symbols and Greek texts denoting different astronomical features.
It was essentially a mechanical orrery that could be used to predict eclipses, track the movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars, and the positions of the five planets then known to the ancients Greeks: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. To view astronomical events of the past, users could simply turn the crank the other way.
James Mangold, director of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, has explained that this mysterious device was the direct inspiration for the movie. However, he suggests that many parts of the object's story have been exaggerated for fantastical effect.
"All the Indiana Jones movies are built on a fusion of fantasy and reality, an extrapolation of what might have been to what may be impossible," the director of the movie James Mangold reportedly told the media. "And I thought the Antikythera mechanism was a great relic."
Clearly, the Antikythera mechanism was not a time-traveling machine (at least that we know about).
There is also no evidence that it was owned by Archimedes. However, some researchers argue that there is a clear connection between the famous thinker and Antikythera mechanism.
In 2021, scientists at UCL reconstructed the Antikythera mechanism to understand how it calculated astronomical cycles. When digging into the history of the device, the researchers found had striking similarities to orrery devices purportedly made by Archimedes several centuries before.
“This machine sounds just like the Antikythera mechanism. The passage suggests that Archimedes, although he lived before we believe the device was built, might have founded the tradition that led to the Antikythera mechanism. It may well be that the Antikythera mechanism was based on a design by Archimedes,” Professor Tony Freeth, lead author of the 2021 research from UCL Mechanical Engineering, wrote for Scientific American.