Who said that sphinxes only get uncovered in the sand dunes of Egyptian deserts? They also do in Californian deserts … though, in this case, they turn out to be film props.
The remarkably preserved head of a sphinx was recently found very close to Santa Barbara, buried in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. It is but a fraction of what was once a magnificent movie set.
This leads us to Cecil B. DeMille, a giant in the film industry during the 20th century and noted for producing epics such as Samson and Delilah, Cleopatra, and The Ten Commandments. For the third of these, in 1923, he chose an area just north of Los Angeles in which to raise an authentic duplicate of ancient Egypt.
The set for the film was lavish and excessive, to say the least. The replica of the pharaoh’s city featured massive walls more than ten stories high, and 21 sphinxes positioned across the dunes. As rumor has it, this was one of the most massive movie sets ever constructed in film history.
After DeMille completed work on the film, he reportedly decided to have his production team hide everything from the set in the dunes. Now, more than 90 years since the film was produced, what was hidden in the sand has begun to re-emerge.
The recovered sphinx from the dunes is unlike its stone-carved counterparts back in Egypt, since it is made from plaster. It is one of two sphinxes so far retrieved by Doug Jenzen, who works as an executive director for the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, a conservation group dedicated to protecting the ecosystem of the area. Jenzen is only one of several collaborators engaged in the excavation activities there. Apart from the two sphinxes, other objects used on the 1923 film set have been found as well, mostly everyday objects used by the people who worked on the set. The film prop of the sphinx, however, looks like one of the most valuable findings thus far anyway.
The research team has been working in the dunes for the last five years. They stumbled on the first sphinx in 2014; however, it was severely damaged. The new discovery, found in November 2017, looks to be in much better shape. It lurked hidden only a few yards away from the first.
Jenzen remarked that “the piece is unlike anything found on previous digs.” He continues: “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 facts [of] historical movie production, such as the fact that objects in black-and-white films were actually painted extremely intense colors.”
DeMille used a lot of money to create his 1923 epic and it was, undoubtedly, an unorthodox choice to have the film set buried in the dunes afterward. However, after filming and production costs for The Ten Commandments exceeded anyone’s expectations–with DeMille even receiving a telegram from the executives stating that he had lost his mind–he decided, in the end, to abandon the set in order to save the cost of dismantling it.
In his memoirs, published in 1959, DeMille remarked on the future of his film set: “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, far from being confined to the Valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean of North America.”
To produce the gigantic props, DeMille had hired a special designer to hand-carve them with Egyptian hieroglyphs. The director had reportedly also imported some 200 camels, as well as employing the best horsemen from the army to rapidly run chariots across the dunes. In the end, the entire sum for filming and producing the biblical epic hit the astonishing total of $1.4 million.
For many decades, the set seemed to have been ultimately lost to the dunes, but once items started showing up in the last couple of years, researchers have been enthusiastically look for more of the almost century-old film artifacts. The team that dug up the second sphinx in November needed dozens of days to do the job, being extra cautious not to disrupt the rare plants and birds domestic to the area.
The recovered sphinx head still needs to undergo restoration process, as if it were a genuine ancient artifact. After that, it should be made available to the public by the summer of 2018, most likely to be exhibited at the Dunes Center as a tribute to classic film culture.