A team of archeologists and Art Deco restorers recently unearthed a piece of classical Hollywood history as they excavated Cecil B. DeMille’s 94-year-old The Ten Commandments film set, buried deep in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. A remarkably intact 300-pound plaster sphinx head was pulled from the sand, one of the 21 sphinxes constructed to adorn the massive Egyptian-themed backdrop featuring oversized pharaohs and large temple gates.
Hollywood legend had it that when DeMille finished shooting his silent film classic — which he remade in the ’50s — he buried the set in the dunes because it was too difficult to haul away and too valuable to let other directors plunder. Now, historians believe the plaster-cast artifacts were simply abandoned and then naturally covered by the shifting sand. Throughout the 1920s, locals carted away most of the brightly painted sphinxes — they were installed as lawn ornaments and used for shooting practice. Two graced the entrance of the Santa Maria golf course. Only a few remained ensconced in the dunes. This most recent discovery — the continuation of a dig started in 2012 — likely represents the last of them, explained Doug Jenzen, director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, which houses other relics of The Ten Commandments.
Jenzen described his awe upon seeing the fingerprints of 1923 Art Deco artists still visible in the plaster sphinx, as well as pieces of horse hair that had been used as a binding agent. Cow bones were discovered in the hollow head, he said, suggesting that at some point in the last century a roving carnivore made a cozy meal of a nearby farm animal. “The statuary is a fascinating amalgamation of different aspects of our region — our history of agriculture, wildlife, and Hollywood,” said Jenzen. “It really heightens the sense of place where we live.” More than three dozen feature films have been made in the dunes. The most recent was the second installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, when whispers of Johnny Depp sightings were common in Guadalupe.
Jenzen said the excavation work hasn’t been cheap. Each dig costs upward of $135,000. And it hasn’t been easy. Rain, flooding, jurisdictional disputes, and the endangered snowy plover nesting season caused more than a few headaches and delays. But it’s been worth it, he said. “People love this project more than anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It really captures the imagination” — especially so for the underprivileged students of Guadalupe, Jenzen went on, as it’s often their first introduction to the field of archaeology.
The center has an agreement with the county that all of the found objects will be used for educational purposes only. They belong to the taxpayers of Santa Barbara, said Jenzen. He occasionally gets inquiries from interested collectors but politely turns them down. Now that the sphinx head is above ground, restorers will get to work patching holes and replacing lost pieces. The center itself is in the midst of a capital campaign to expand. “This could be a great centerpiece,” Jenzen said.