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“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” – Antikythera mechanism and Polybius square

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny | Photo: Disney

From June 30, in cinemas, you can see the latest part about one of the most popular film archaeologists – Indiana Jones – in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”. Interestingly, for the first time in this Hollywood historical production, the subject of ancient Rome was touched upon, which is of particular interest to me. Therefore, this article will be devoted to the comparison of the interpretation created for the film by the screenwriters, the history of the Antikythera Mechanism, with what we can find in historical sources or the latest archaeological research.

At the beginning, I would like to point out that the article is a movie spoiler and if you don’t want to know the ending of the movie, I advise you to read the text after watching the movie!


The plot of the film centers around the “miracle” mechanism of Antikythera – an ancient artifact – which is an object sought by many people, including the Nazis (led by Dr. World War II. Indiana Jones’s friend, Basil, is researching the unique properties of the device, who, obsessed with the object, comes to the conclusion that combining the two parts of the device will allow people to find gaps in space-time and travel through time. As it turns out, the creator of the device is supposed to be Archimedes himself – the famous Greek inventor, scientist and mathematician – who helps the inhabitants in defending Syracuse against the Roman army in the years 214-211 BCE.

Indiana Jones – a retired lecturer and historian – together with his goddaughter (daughter of Basil’s friend) tries to stop the Nazis from getting both parts of the mechanism and the enigmatic “graphikos”, which, excavated from the wreck of a Roman ship, is to indicate the location of the missing second part of the artifact. It turns out that the cipher used to read information from the “graphikos” is the so-called “Polybius code”. With his help, both our heroes and the Nazis go to the famous Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse – former quarries in Sicily. This is where the tomb of Archimedes and the missing part of the Antikythera Mechanism are supposed to be located. When the two parts of the artifact are combined, it turns out that this one actually points to a “rift” in space-time, and the Nazis hope to go back in time and change the course of history by leading the Third Reich to victory in World War II. As it turns out, however, the mechanism indicates only one moment in history and allows you to go back only to the times of Archimedes, and more precisely to the moment when the Romans, with the help of countless triremes, besieged Syracuse during the Second Punic War.

Reference to historical facts

Ankythera Mechanism

Ankythera Mechanism

The screenwriters of the new “Indiana Jones” presented the story according to their interpretation, which I will refer to as historical facts below. The famous Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient mechanical device that most scientists believe was designed to calculate the positions of celestial bodies. It was originally thought to be some kind of ancient computer. However, the discovery of numerous Greek inscriptions and zodiac signs indicates that it was an astrological device.

The Antikythera mechanism was discovered in 1901 at a depth of 45 meters, in the wreck of an ancient ship, near the Greek island of Antikythera (hence its name), between the islands of Kythira and Crete. In the following years, further discoveries were carried out in the area of ​​the find, bringing to light further fragments of the device.

What certainly fascinated the creators of the film was the fact that the mechanism was exceptionally advanced for the era in which it was created and extremely small in size. The device itself could measure in the wooden frame (on which it was mounted) about 34 cm high, 18 cm wide and 9 cm long. Scientists discovered the find as one corroded lump, which they then separated into three parts after the conservation process. According to the researchers, the mechanism consisted of as many as 37 bronze gears, which had a diameter of 1 to 13 cm, and which simulated the rhythmic movement of the Moon and the Sun along the orbits and indicated the occurrence of solar eclipses. Researchers speculate that in addition to determining the movements of the Moon and the Sun, the mechanism could also record the movements of the then-known planets (Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). The wheels were driven by a crank (or several cranks) on the side and moved several hands. Importantly, research in ancient times on the movement of the Sun and the Moon was conducted by Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer from the 2nd century BC. – hence the assumption that the device could have been made by him. However, there are also suggestions that the author could even be Archimedes himself or his disciples. However, this information is not confirmed, this assumption is made by the screenwriters of the film.

The question that researchers ask themselves is to what period we can date the device. Based on numerous finds (especially coins) in the wreck, scientists determined that the ship sank in the range of 70-60 BCE. The mechanism, in turn, was made between 205 and 80 of the 1st century BCE.

Interestingly, the mechanism was so complicated that it is assumed that until the 14th century, when the first astronomical watches were created, no similar object of similar complexity was created.

In 2006, a visual reconstruction of what the complete Antikythera Mechanism might have looked like was presented. We can see it, together with the artifact itself, in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Digital reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism.
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Importantly, in the place where the find was discovered and in its vicinity, searches are still being carried out, in the hope that further fragments of the mechanism will be fished out of the sea. As we hear among researchers, the wreck of a Roman ship from the vicinity of Antikythera is a real treasury of ancient artifacts. We do not know where exactly the Roman ship was sailing, but it is suspected that it may have sailed from Athens to Rome. It could also be a ship of a Roman aristocrat with looted/gathered Greek treasures or a state boat with loot. According to the script, the mechanism was found on a Roman shipwreck, but it probably did not come from the period of the Second Punic War, as stated in the film.

However, moving on to the mechanism from Antikythera and associating it with the figure of Archimedes – the filmmakers used the loophole and, based on the premises, decided that its inventor was a Greek visionary. Archimedes, wanting to hide his great discovery from the Romans, divided the mechanism into two parts – one he hid in his tomb, and the other was stolen by the Romans. Unfortunately for them, however, the ship carrying the object was about to sink. As I mentioned, however, the wreck of a Roman merchant ship off the Greek island of Antikythera is dated much later, so unfortunately linking it to events more than 100 years earlier is incorrect. Moreover, there is no indication that the mechanism consisted of only two parts, and its condition leaves much to be desired, unlike how it is presented in the film. For over 2,000 years, the artifact was heavily damaged, and reconstruction work was extremely complicated. In addition, the mechanism itself is dated to a period later than Archimedes lived. However, it cannot be ruled out that the device imitated earlier mechanisms of this type; Moreover, the researchers who worked on the analysis of the device claim that it was too complicated and sophisticated for only such a machine to be created.

It is worth noting, however, that Cicero himself mentioned in his work “De re publica” (I.21) the creation by Archimedes of mechanisms that could determine the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets known at that time. Apparently, these devices were brought to Rome by the commander-in-chief of the Roman army during the siege of Syracuse – Marcellus. We are not sure, however, whether it could have been a mechanism similar to the one discovered near Antikythera.

Polybius square

In the film, Indiana Jones’ goddaughter – Helena – reads a message saved by Archimedes on graphikos using the so-called the “Polybius checkerboard” (also known as the Polybius square). What do we know about this way of encrypting messages?

The Polybius checkerboard was a type of monoalphabetic cipher (the hidden letter corresponds to the open letter), which owes its name to the famous ancient historian and writer – Polybius. As Polybius himself tells us in his “Histories” (X.45), the author of the cipher is the Greeks – Cleoksenos and Democletus – but it was he who undertook to improve the mechanism.

Polybius checkerboard in Latin

Polybius’s chessboard consisted of five tablets, with five Greek letters on each (the exception was the last one, where there were only four letters; in the Latin version, each tablet had five letters). No original tablet with the cipher has survived to our times. Next to it, there is a chessboard of Polybius in the Latin version.

Generally, the principle of encryption consisted in providing specific digits that indicate the position of a given letter in the table – the first digit is the row number, and the second – is the column. Thus, the word: CAESAR in the encrypted version takes the form: 13 11 15 43 11 42.

According to Polybius, improving the encryption of messages was important for sending urgent and non-obvious information. Previous methods allowed sending only predetermined and expected message formats.

Moving on to the use of the Polybius cipher in the film – in my opinion, it cannot be ruled out. Polybius himself says that the “chessboard” was invented by the Greeks with specific names; however, we do not know the full history, and perhaps the cipher was so well known that even Archimedes himself could have known it. It is worth noting, however, that Polybius lived in the middle of the second century BCE, more than 50 years after the siege of Syracuse; thus, the final version of Polybius’s code could not be known to him. But the mere mention of Polybius’s code need not be wrong; after all, it was he who promoted it through his notes, and Archimedes may have known the earlier version.

Siege of Syracuse

The fight scenes at the walls of Syracuse, shown at the end of the film, seemed to be the most correct. Roman triremes tried to approach the walls of the well-protected city. From what I remember, Roman soldiers were relatively well presented, although I have the impression that their armament and clothing referred more to a later era, e.g. the 1st century BCE. On the walls of the city, you could also see the famous Archimedes mirrors, which, according to ancient sources, were to be arranged in such a way that the reflecting sun rays hit one point on the ship, being able to heat the wood to such an extent that a fire appeared. This event is described by Lucian of Samosata – a Roman historian from the 2nd century CE – in the work “Dialogues of the Dead”, claiming that the method turned out to be effective and many ships were destroyed.

To sum up, the plot context looks interesting, and historical ambiguities are arranged in an interesting interpretation that sets the pace of the film’s plot, which makes the film attract the viewer and allows you to enter the world of Indiana Jones with a similar commitment as in the previous parts of the film. I recommend.

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