Dialing Back the Dial of Destiny

I finally saw Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny last weekend. It quite clearly tried to evoke the look and feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with partial success. I won’t review it, because that would be like reviewing an uncle (or in this case, a great-uncle). Instead, I’d like to make some archaeological observations on the film, being well aware, of course, that, as Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. says in The Last Crusade, “this isn’t archaeology!”

First, the titular dial is of course identified as the Antikythera Mechanism, which it only superficially resembles:

The real ‘Dial of Destiny’ (that is, if your destiny is to see a lunar eclipse)

In the film it is often called just ‘The Antikythera,’ but this is meaningless, since Antikythera is the name of the island near where it was found. In fact, the name just means ‘opposite Kythera,’ as Antikythera is across the strait from the larger island of Kythera.

As Alexander Jones has recently argued in his book A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 2017), the Antikythera Mechanism was probably made to calculate astronomical data, such as eclipses. This does not exclude the possibility that it could also calculate rifts in space-time that look unsettlingly like a cat’s anus, but it does seem unlikely. Moreover, Jones suggests that it was made on Rhodes in the first century BCE, not Syracuse in the late third century, as the film has it. This means it was not the work of Archimedes; more likely, it builds on the work of Hipparchus of Rhodes.

The hunt for a magic (remember, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) device made by Archimedes gives rise to an evitable comparison with another film, Quest of the Delta Knights (1993), in which Leonardo da Vinci and an annoying kid go looking for something from Archimedes’ ‘storehouse’ that can save the world. David Warner plays multiple roles. (It was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, where one of the robots calls it ‘Quest of the Delta Burkes’). In fact, it has a lot in common with The Dial of Destiny, such as the, uh, ‘quality’ of the dialogue.

The Dial of Destiny is set in 1969, with Indy teaching at Hunter College in New York. I cannot help but wonder in what department he teaches. Classics? Religious studies? Biblical anthropology (if such a thing exists)? In the scene in the lecture hall he appears to be describing the characteristics of Assyrian pottery. Neo-Assyrian pottery usually looks like this:

Assyrian palace ware beaker, 7th cen. BCE, excavated at Nimrud. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 54.117.35.

The vessel Dr. Jones was describing, however, looked much more like Chalcolithic Iranian pottery:

Beaker with a checkerboard design, ca. 4th millennium BCE, excavated at Susa. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 48.98.9.

I guess that’s understandable; prehistoric Iranian pottery is confusing! What’s even more confusing, however, is why he immediately segues to Archimedes. It’s no wonder that his students have no idea what he’s talking about; presumably they had prepared for a class on Assyrian pottery, not the history of Sicily. What course is this, anyway?

And speaking of Sicily, on their way to the Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse, Indy and Helena somehow ended up in Segesta, which is all the way on the northwestern end of the island. Pretty poor navigation on their part I daresay. I’m not surprised the Nazis caught up with them so quickly.

Finally, I can’t resist taking an archaeological jab at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even though that film has nothing in it that could remotely be identified as archaeological, except perhaps for the moment when Indy rides through the library on a motorcycle and dispenses the following piece of advice to a student: “Read Vere Gordon Childe. He spent most of his life in the field.” On the one hand, this is good advice. Gordon Childe was among the most important archaeological thinkers of the first half of the 20th century, and the author of many influential books, such as Man Makes Himself. On the other, Childe rarely went into the field, and was described by Robert Braidwood (American Anthropologist 60 [1958], 734) as an ‘indifferent excavator.’ Instead, Childe was one of the first archaeologists to think about how ancient human society in general–not any one specific society at any specific time–worked. So Dr. Jones gave good advice for completely the wrong reason! Then again, since his precise area of expertise remains unclear, perhaps, like an elderly family member, we should forgive him his ignorance.