Zach Goes to the Movies: The Ancient Mechanical Device at the Center of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and the Vintage Inspired Hamilton Worn on Indy’s Last Great Adventure

There are endless stories in the watch community of the random things that spark an interest in this hobby. We’ve all heard many variations on the watch as a hand-me-down artifact from a relative being the curiosity driving agent behind an interest in horology. Just the other day, an old friend sent me an Instagram post from an account that specializes in cataloging toys from the 1980s – it was a Transformers watch, and when I saw it I immediately remembered that I’d begged in vain for this weird item as a Hanukkah gift, only to come up empty. This very well could have been my Rosebud – the thing that without even realizing it set the stage for an adulthood of staying up way too late on internet forums looking for a great deal on a pre-owned Seiko.

When I saw Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that this movie could be that defining moment for a new generation of watch enthusiasts. Hyperbole? I don’t know, maybe. The movie features, as a primary plot point, a mechanical watch-like device, referred to in the film as the Antikythera. Hardcore watch enthusiasts and horology scholars know that the Antikythera is very much a real thing, even if the version in the new film comes out of the imagination of the screenwriters. But it’s that nebulous “real or not real?” status that I imagine will make some younger, future watch nerds curious, and set them down a path that leads, inexorably, to sites like this one, and spending way too much time thinking about eBay and WatchRecon alert strategies

Courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd., TM

It’s also one of the things that the Indiana Jones franchise does best: blending actual history and myth to set Indy off on his adventures. Scholars have studied the Ark of the Covenant (the artifact driving the action in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the Holy Grail (ditto for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) for literally as long as scholars have studied anything at all. The threads of real history present in the rollicking lark that is the Indiana Jones franchise are enough to get people genuinely interested in the ancient world, not to mention World War II, 1950s Americana, and, in the new film, a curious vision of the late 60s, through the eyes of an aging archaeologist who is not quite past his prime. 

Some might dismiss the Grail and Antikythera as MacGuffins, physical plot devices that exist to put characters in a particular place at a particular time to advance the story, and nothing more. In a lesser franchise, they would be. The Indiana Jones movies are smart enough to treat these things with a certain amount of respect, because our hero, Dr. Henry Jones Jr., is not a super spy, or a caped comic book hero. He’s a teacher. In the films, he comes to these things with a genuine enthusiasm, and, most importantly, curiosity. It’s not at all unlike how we approach watches. Indiana Jones might have a whip and be happy to punch Nazis in the face, but he’s also a big nerd for history. As played by River Phoenix in the opening sequence of Last Crusade, Indy’s mantra of “This should be in a museum!” in reference to the stolen Cross of Coronado says all you need to know about his view on these things. It’s a character defining trait. 

I won’t spoil Dial of Destiny, except to say that the Antikythera is revealed early on as an important artifact from Indy’s past, and as the film presses on, watch fans will be delighted to see that the mechanical nature of the device is on full display, and something that’s discussed openly among our main characters. It’s pointed out several times that the Antikythera predates the advent of watches by centuries, and everytime the device comes up in the film (which is frequently – it’s the “dial of destiny” in the title, after all) it feels like an Easter egg for watch lovers. 

The more you know about the real Antikythera, the more fun you’re likely to have tracking Indy’s quest for the movie version. In short, the Antikythera is an ancient Greek, hand powered mechanical model of the solar system, cited by many scholars as the oldest known example of an analog computer. The mechanism was capable of predicting and tracking celestial events like eclipses and the positions of stars decades in advance, and is a feat of ancient Greek engineering and mathematics. It’s estimated that the mechanism, found in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, was constructed in the late second century or early first century BC (similar astronomical devices wouldn’t appear again until at least the 14th century). Because of the advanced nature of the device, it’s assumed that there are as yet undiscovered similar mechanisms that predate what was found in that shipwreck. 

A fragment of the Antikythera housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Image

A fascinating piece of the Antikythera’s story is that, similarly in some ways to how the device is presented in the movie, it’s the subject of serious archaeological expeditions to this day. Over the decades, there have been many expeditions to the shipwreck to search for additional fragments of the device, and other clues that could tell scholars more about the people who made it, where they were going, and why. Piecing together various fragments of dials and gears that have been brought up to the surface or otherwise found in storage has been the primary occupation of Antikythera scholars as of late. There are a total of 82 known fragments of the device, and the search continues, with new dives to the shipwreck taking place as recently as the last three years.

Over years of research, a great deal has been learned about how the Antikythera would have been operated. It consists of two primary faces, or dials, one showing the Greek signs of the Zodiac along with what scholars presume to be either a 365 or 354 day calendar, and the other “rear face” showing a total of five dials displaying a Metonic calendar that tracks lunar cycles, and a “saros” calendar that predicts eclipses. The timeframes for these calendars are incredibly long – 19 years for the Metonic calendar – so the proper setting of the Antikythera to the correct solar day would have been critical. It’s an incredibly complex mechanical device even by the standards of today’s most complicated watches, with 30 gears (that we know about it) and the ability to track at least 15 separate intervals when all of the calendar functionality is taken into account. Imagine a mechanical watch made today with 15 complications within such a complex calendar system and you start to see how far ahead of its time the Antikythera really was. 

Through X-Ray and 3D mapping technology, scientists have been able to learn more about the ancient device, and have been able to fabricate working reconstructions of it. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

You can understand how the Antikythera as a plot point in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny would be of interest to watch people, but of course there’s also an actual watch in the film that has its own significance. The Hamilton Boulton worn by Indy makes total sense in the context of the film. It’s a watch that has existed in the Hamilton catalog since the 1940s, and the fact that Indy, in the timeline of the movie, is wearing a vintage example in the late 60s has a personal connection for the character that I won’t spoil. It’s a satisfying moment, though, when we learn about the story of the watch, and it will certainly please long standing fans of the franchise. 

Courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd., TM

Hamilton of course has a long history of placing watches in films in a way that goes well beyond product placement. They are rightly proud of their long association with the movie industry, going all the way back to Elvis Presley’s Ventura in Blue Hawaii, to watches that play large roles in the storytelling of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Tenet. By their count, Hamilton watches have been featured in over 500 films over the years, and while not every single one is an iconic bit of watch casting, they have a track record that is impressive by any standard. Dial of Destiny continues that tradition, and that story, with a watch that feels perfectly suited to an iconic character, in a movie with a watch-like device at the center of it. If you take a step back, you realize how important it is to get the watch right, and I think Hamilton has done that. 

In the Time on Screen podcast, we talk often about how just about every movie, in some way, is about time, which is rather convenient in my opinion, because it allows us to talk about just about any movie we choose to. A movie like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, is about time in both a literal and figurative sense, and if, like me, you can’t remember a time in your life where Harrison Ford’s performance as Indiana Jones wasn’t part of your own movie watching history, the latest (and final) entry in the franchise becomes that much more poignant. In a way, I’m jealous of the people of a younger generation who will discover the franchise for the first time with all five films available to them at once. They have so many intellectual rabbit holes to jump down depending on where their interests happen to lie, and I’m sure that at least some who gravitate towards this final film will count themselves among a new class of watch collectors eventually. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.