The sands of time that make up the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes recently gave up a new visage of the region’s connection to the Golden Age of moviemaking -- a 300-pound plaster sphinx head.
In the early 1920s, legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille and movie production crews descended on the sand dunes west of Guadalupe to create a large Egyptian-themed set for DeMille’s movie, “The Ten Commandments.”
When filming was done, according to local legend, it was too expensive to move and too valuable to leave for rival filmmakers to plunder, so DeMille buried it.
During a recent archaeological dig, which began Oct. 23 and wrapped up Nov. 4, researchers discovered the head of a 300-pound plaster sphinx that was part of the 94-year-old movie set.
“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.
What makes the recent find significant is its size and how well-preserved researchers found it.
“The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact," Jenzen said. "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."
For his famous silent film, DeMille ordered the construction of a lavish set including pharaohs, sphinxes and colossal temple gates. In all, 21 sphinxes were created to be part of the immense movie set.
While the complete set was reportedly 12 stories high and 800 feet wide, only a small fraction of the set has been recovered, Jenzen said.
A few years ago, Dunes Center leaders decided to work to recover and restore a complete sphinx and put it on display at the Dune Center, however, efforts have been challenging due to fundraising struggles, and complex state and local regulations.
Archaeological dig permits, for example, are temporary and cost about $135,000, which covers the excavation, funding for two art restorers and the administrative work, according to Jenzen.
"Funding is an ongoing need," he said.
The 2017 expedition was the second phase of a dig conducted in 2014. Researchers stumbled on their large find while excavating the remainder of a sphinx body left from the previous endeavor.
The sphinx head, which is about 5 feet by 8 feet, is currently being stored so it can dry out for a few months before art restorers can get to work preserving the artifact.
“It’s 94 years old and has been buried near the beach for that long; it is wet. If you think of the drywall in your house buried for 94 years at the beach, that is the consistency of the material we are working with,” Jenzen said.
Jenzen said it is important to preserve the pieces of 20th-century history in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes because they are one-of-a-kind and help bring people to the area to learn about movie history and the region.
“It was the early years that established the movie industry that we all go and see today. This early age of films was the very first time where people all around the world could go and have the same experience together in a theater,” Jenzen said.
“People who may not be interested in exploring the beach or the interesting geology and biology of the region will go and come here and see this stuff. It is a great ambassador for this area,” he added.
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center is planning an unveiling event this summer.
Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.
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