After nearly a century, the shifting red dunes of California’s Central Coast are giving up their final secrets. For 10 days in November, archaeologists used shovels, horsehair brushes, and gallons of quick-hardening foam to unearth and remove a nearly complete Egyptian sphinx from the sands of Guadalupe, CA.
Rather than the North African limestone that gives the Great Sphinx of Giza its form, however, the Cali sphinx is constructed of plaster.
It’s is also nowhere near as ancient as its Egyptian cousin. The Guadalupe sphinx is likely the last remnant of a colossal movie set constructed here in 1923 by the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, for his black-and-white silent movie The Ten Commandments. At the time, it was one of the largest movie sets ever built, consisting of a pharaoh’s gate some 12 stories tall and 720 ft long, with 21 sphinxes arrayed down a perpendicular corridor, where hundreds of actors and extras reenacted scenes of Biblical bondage.
A team of six archaeologists and restoration experts worked from dawn till dusk, exercising extreme care not to step on any of the federally protected rare plants that grow here. Because of those plants, and the western snowy plover, a small, ecologically threatened bird which also lives here, the dunes have been protected since the 1970s. That’s one reason it took so long for the excavation to occur. It’s also an important area to local indigenous groups. A monitor representing the Northern Chumash watched over the dig, should any tribal artifacts be uncovered. When I visited in November, a sense of extreme urgency had set in. The three-day forecast called for rain, which would likely destroy the sphinx forever.
“Anything that we can recover from the site, now is the time to do it,” said Colleen Hamilton, the lead archaeologist on the project.
Recovering the sphinx is the 20-year dream of Doug Janzen, the executive director of the Dunes Center, a conservation organization that administers the lovely Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes reserve. The four-sq-mile expanse of red-tinted sands conjures visions, depending on the light, of either ancient Egypt or Arrakis, the desert-planet of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Janzen struggled for five years to secure permits and funding for the excavation. As the project neared completion, the 37-year-old scampered around the open pit here in a state of frantic exhilaration.
“It’s both exciting and terrifying,” he said, as one of the archaeologists carefully brushed away sand from the sphinx’s serrated headdress.
Whether an object not quite a century old counts as “noteworthy” is a matter of debate. But this is Hollywood, after all, the epicenter of man-made fantasy that arose from a relative desert in the first half of the 20th century. DeMille was one of its towering figures. Though the director’s sphinx may not carry the same heft as, say, a mysterious void inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, this counts as deep history for Californians.
Building the set was a monumental effort, requiring the labor of some 1,300 workers, 3,000 animals, 50,000 ft of lumber, 25,000 lbs of nails, and 250 tons of plaster. It’s the sort of thing only a pharaoh would dream of attempting. That it was built to be temporary seems like nitpicking, given the importance of the movie industry to the state.
“It’s a significant find,” says Jenzen. “There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world.”
One of the looming questions here is why DeMille decided to bury the set at all. Jenzen says there are two theories: one is that DeMille, in typical Hollywood style, had gone so far over budget that he couldn’t afford to dismantle the set and load it onto train cars to haul it back to LA. The other is that DeMille—a control freak known to fret over the smallest details—didn’t want another director to sneak in and reuse the set for their own (likely shabbier) production. Repurposing sets, and sometimes even straight-up stealing them, was common in an era before CGI allowed for the creation of entire worlds on silicon.
The set was considered “lost” in Hollywood circles, because so few people knew it had been buried. Locals, of course, knew of its existence. And it was “rediscovered” by Hollywood in 1983, when the filmmaker Peter Brosnan was reading DeMille’s autobiography and came across this line: “If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
Brosnan set out to find the buried set. He talked to locals in and around Guadalupe, a small city in Santa Barbara County, west of wine-country capital Santa Maria. Eventually he found a local who led him up the steep dunes, revealing a small galaxy of plaster shards, rusted nails, and other detritus strewn about the sands.
Brosnan set out to excavate the area, but was stymied by the county of Santa Barbara, which has jurisdiction over the site and nearly strangled his efforts in red tape, an ordeal he captured in the recent documentary film The Lost City of DeMille.
When Brosnan finally did get permission and funding to excavate in 2012, his team found part of a sphinx and sought to recover the rest, believing that would be the ideal ending for their film. Unfortunately, the sphinx they found was in poor condition, and it fell to pieces when they tried to remove it. The removal nonetheless makes for a dramatic ending to the film. The reconstructed sphinx is now on display at the Dunes Center, but it’s far from a complete structure.
Jenzen thought there just might be another, more complete, sphinx out there. Last year, his team discovered a second sphinx just a few yards away from where they found the first. Many of the archaeologists who are now digging out this second sphinx worked on the first team as well; to avoid what happened with the first sphinx, they now employ a special yellow spray foam that adheres to the inner sides of the second sphinx, giving it support. As more of the sand is pulled away, revealing the other side of the head and a massive paw, the growing excitement among the crew is palpable.
On the 10th and final day of digging, the team carefully lashes the sphinx’s massive head onto a homemade sled made of wood and old surfboards. It takes six people to lift the head out of the pit. Its underside, which has for decades been entombed almost 10 feet below the surface, is still covered in ochre paint, and glows persimmon in the afternoon light.
In several months, after restoration, the new sphinx will be put on display at the Dunes Center. “Movie sets just don’t exist anymore from that Golden Age of Hollywood,” says Jenzen. “This represents an opportunity to save a piece of American history before it’s destroyed.”