Sphinx from 90-year-old movie set unearthed in California

By OSCAR FLORES / Posted on December 2, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed a perfectly intact 300-pound plaster Egyptian sphinx at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes — part of Cecil B. DeMille’s 95-year-old movie set.

“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” said Doug Jenzen, Executive Director of the Dunes Center. “The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact.  This is significant and shows that we’re still learning unexpected facets to film historical movie production such as the fact that objects in black and white films were actually painted extremely intense colors.”

DeMille, known for his epic films and cinematic showmanship, ordered the construction of a lavish Egyptian set for his 1923 silent movie “The Ten Commandments.”

The set in Santa Barbara County would go on to include pharaohs, sphinxes, and colossal temple gates for the beloved biblical epic. In all, 21 sphinxes graced the immense movie set. Only a fraction of the 12-stories-high 800-feet-wide set has been recovered.

Many believe the removal of the set after filming was too expensive and too valuable to leave behind for rival filmmakers to poach, so DeMille had it buried beneath the dunes.

Fortunately, archaeologists say the sand allows for drainage, which helps support the buried structures. Otherwise, Jenzen said, the set pieces would “turn to mush.”

A trove of historical artifacts from the 1923 movie set has turned up since excavations began at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Everyday relics found include items such as prohibition liquor bottles, makeup, and tobacco tins shedding light on what life was like for the cast and crew in 1923.

Excavation efforts, however, have not come easy for archaeologists. Complex state and local regulations, as well as fundraising struggles, have clouded efforts for decades to continually work to unearth one of the biggest –if not, the biggest, movie set of its time.

Dig permits are temporary and each project costs about $135,000.

“This covers the excavation, funding for two art restorers, and the administrative work,” Jenzen said.

For now, excavations will remain. After artifacts are restored, they are housed at the Dunes Center Museum in downtown Guadalupe. The museum celebrates and promotes appreciation for the area’s unique history and treasures through interactive exhibits.

The unveiling of the new sphinx is expected in summer 2018.