Learn about ancient object that inspired 'The Dial of Destiny' in Indiana Jones movie

A black and white photo shows an artifact that appears to have a dial on it. There is also some writing on it.
A photo of a portion of the Antikythera Mechanism, labeled Fragment A early photos from Rehm Nachlass
Image credit - Courtesy of Alexander Jones, New York University

The inspiration behind the so-called "The Dial of Destiny" in the 2023 Indiana Jones movie is an ancient mechanical object that scholars say provides crucial insight into ancient Greeks' understanding of astronomy at that time.

This week, the Grand Valley community has a chance to hear from one of the leading experts on the object, named the Antikythera Mechanism: Alexander Jones, the Leon Levy Director and Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at New York University.

Jones will speak at 2 p.m. April 5 in the Mary Idema Pew Library's multipurpose room.

"One thing that we hope people will take away from Dr. Jones’ presentation is an appreciation of the innovative, creative spirit with which peoples of the ancient Mediterranean approached the exploration of their world," said Melissa Morison, GVSU Classics Department chair. 

"While the Mechanism's exact purpose and the extent of its capabilities are still the subject of ongoing research, its discovery has provided valuable insights into the technological innovation of ancient civilizations and their sophisticated understanding of the cosmos."

Jones said in an interview that he would describe the object as "a kind of simulator that allows you to imitate the passage of time at an accelerated rate."

First discovered by Greek sponge divers in 1901, the Mechanism now consists of 82 identifiable fragments, some as small as a fingernail, Jones said. What has been recovered is about a third the size of the original.

The artifact, which dates back to around the first century BCE, contains dials, instruments, an intricate gearing system and text that have all provided clues to experts about its use, Jones said. He said this existed at a time when Greek astronomy was getting very mathematically sophisticated.

"This is clearly at the most advanced end of what could be done in a workshop environment to display scientific knowledge at the time," Jones said.

An artifact in three pieces, with a green coloring, is seen through a glass box.
This photo shows the three "main" fragments A, B, and C as they are displayed now in the National Archaeological Museum in Greece, according to Jones.
Image credit - Anita Gould, license CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

Jones marvels at the complexity of the device and the scientists' depth of knowledge it indicates, including the movement of heavenly bodies known in ancient times and the prediction of eclipses.

"I think it was probably a high-end teaching device that you would use to teach lessons in astronomy to, say, a sort of elite class of wealthy intellectual people," Jones said. "And it would be really impressive to be able to show this box that is like a sped-up version of the cosmos around us in that very miniature form."

Noting the Mechanism is a "real demonstration of the power of human invention and intellect," Jones said the object also provides insight into the complex history of humans, their societies and cultures.

Morison said the visit by Jones helps emphasize an area of increasing interests for students.

" In Classics, we are expanding our capacities in the area of ancient Mediterranean technologies of all kinds, to align with increasing student interest in that area," she said. "Being able to host Dr. Jones is a great way to get started."


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.