Buried beneath the shifting sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is a story of Biblical proportions.
In 1923, legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille built an epic Egyptian dreamscape on California’s Central Coast for the silent black-and-white movie “The Ten Commandments.”
Twenty-one giant sphinxes lined a path to an 800-foot-wide temple. Legend has it that after the filming was done, the set was too expensive to move and too valuable to leave for rival filmmakers to poach — so DeMille had it pushed into a trench and buried.
And so there the sphinxes lay, entombed in graves of sand for nine decades just outside the small farming town of Guadalupe, where they were mostly forgotten.
Archaeologists this week excavated a plaster sphinx from what has now been dubbed the Lost City of DeMille.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of site,” said M. Colleen Hamilton, a senior historical archaeologist with Applied EarthWorks and project director for the excavation. “I’ve worked on sites all over the country, and I think this one could only happen in California.”
At the time the silent film was made, crew members built the sphinxes in Los Angeles and transported them piece by piece to Guadalupe, where they were assembled on set, Hamilton said.
A sphinx was partially exhumed in 2012, when archaeologists contracted by the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center found fragile plaster pieces of its head, which have since been reassembled and put on display at the center.
But time and money ran out before the rest of the body could be unearthed, Hamilton said.
On Oct. 6, archaeologists returned to the site, hoping to recover the rest of the sphinx, but it was in poor shape. The wind had uncovered the body, which — exposed to the elements — had essentially imploded.
That same wind, however, unearthed something else, about 10 feet away: the hind leg and paw of another sphinx.
“It was a really pleasant surprise when we found out it was almost a full sphinx,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, which raised $120,000 for the most recent dig.
The second sphinx was missing much of its face — but archaeologists had been looking for an intact body to put on display.
Though lore has it that DeMille buried the sphinxes in a trench, “it’s now looking like the sphinxes were in the exact location where they were filmed,” Jenzen said.
The sphinx was made of plaster that was nearly “paper thin” by the time it was unearthed, Jenzen said. The sphinx statues were hollow and, over time, filled with sand.
“It was like working with a hollow chocolate rabbit,” Jenzen said. “These were built to last two months during filming in 1923, and these statues have been sitting out in the elements since then.”
To keep the fragile plaster from cracking, the archaeologists covered the pieces of the sphinx in liquid consolidant and wrapped them in cheesecloth, Hamilton said. They slowly removed sand from within the body and filled it with foam to keep it stable.
The sphinx’s body is now drying out at an off-site location. It will be reconstructed and put on display at the Dunes Center along with the first sphinx’s head.
The Dunes Center, Jenzen said, is still trying to raise money for the sphinx’s preservation.
For residents of Guadalupe, the “The Ten Commandments” and the Lost City of DeMille are now woven into the small town’s history.
“The old-timers have always known it was out there,” said Shirley Boydstun, 86, a member of the Rancho de Guadalupe Historical Society.
Decades ago, not long after the film wrapped, a local welder found nails — lots of them — from the old movie set and welded them into tiny Christian crosses that have become cherished mementos for townspeople, Boydstun said.
But for the most part, people left the set alone, she said, out of respect for the city buried in the sand.