Archaeologists finished their race Monday to excavate a sphinx from the set of Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 epic silent film "The Ten Commandments" the director left buried in the Guadalupe Dunes.

The excavation will likely be the last one mounted by the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in its efforts to preserve, restore and display artifacts from the only movie set known to exist from that era.

"Unless something really major happens, unless we get a bigger facility, this will be the last excavation here," Dunes Center Executive Director Doug Jenzen said last Thursday as he stood atop a dune surveying the site, its location a carefully guarded secret known only to a few.

Down the leeward slope, archaeologists worked feverishly in one of two side-by-side pits, each surrounding one of the plaster sphinxes constructed for DeMille's film.

They were working to balance the slower pace needed for the plaster to dry out so it could be moved with the faster pace required to prevent it from crumbling from too much exposure to the open air.

At the same time, they were trying to maintain a pace to finish the job by Monday, the end date for the work contract that was determined, essentially, by available funding.

Four archaeologists from Applied Earthworks, an art restorer, a Native American monitor for the Northern Chumash and a Cal Poly intern were carefully removing pieces of one sphinx that had already disintegrated.

In the other pit, a nearly intact sphinx lay on its side, only the first few inches exposed so its plaster could dry out as the workers perfected their extraction method on its crumbling neighbor.

A moving target

The crumbling sphinx was originally the focus for the excavation.

Discovered 2012 by Applied Earthworks archaeologists, it is one of the 21 sphinxes — each standing 12 feet tall and weighing 5 tons —that in the film lined the wide sand avenue leading to the gates of "Pharaoh's City."

When it was found, archaeologists had only enough time and funding to remove its head, now restored and displayed inside a plexiglass case in the Dunes Center.

The initial goal for this dig was to exhume the body and reunite it with the head.

"Last week in a preproject survey, we found the wind had blown the sand off, and it pretty much imploded," Jenzen said. "But the wind also uncovered another piece 20 feet away that turned out to be another sphinx, and it's in much better shape."

It's also much smaller.

"There are pictures of the actors as slaves hauling one around," Jenzen said. "We think that may be what this one is." 

The archaeologists planned to protect the sphinx for removal using the same technique that preserves artifacts excavated in the Middle East — coating them with epoxy and a layer of cheese cloth.

But the humidity from a persistent marine layer prevented the epoxy from adhering, Jenzen said, and the crew had to come up with another plan.

"We're figuring it out as we go," said Leeann Haslouer, a staff archaeologist with Applied Earthworks. "We improvise, experiment, change strategies — we adapt."

Haslouer has been on a number of archaeological digs, from prehistoric Native American shell middens to Spanish colonial buildings and aquaducts in downtown Santa Barbara to historic oil fields in Santa Maria.

"This is completely different because this is a completely different situation," she said. "There are no other film sets like this. There are no other sphinxes to dig up."

The protective process they came up with was to place a sheet of thin plastic over the plaster, then coat it with expanding foam insulation that hardens to protect the fragile pieces while they're moved.

"This is starting to work," she said, as workers lifted a large portion of the hindquarters out of the pit.

"The piece over there we're working on is more robust," she said, looking down into the pit with the intact sphinx. "This one's not nearly as sturdy, so it's more of a challenge.

"It's nice to work and learn on the sturdier piece before we move to this one."

The last excavation

If the sphinx is successfully removed and preserved, it will become the centerpiece of a major display devoted to DeMille's film in the Dunes Center, which Jenzen said simply won't have any more space for additional artifacts.

That's why this dig was likely the last one the center will undertake, he said. And with a price tag of $120,000 for this excavation, it's not likely any other organization, business or agency will fund a future dig.

For Jenzen, that's a loss for the local community as well as society as a whole.

"This project is significant for multiple reasons," he said. "First and foremost, it's unlike anything else on Earth, and it's part of the unique character of the Central Coast.

"It provides a way to preserve an important piece of Americana," he continued. "It preserves the local heritage, and it promotes the local economy through heritage tourism.

"Everything we learn here will contribute to the larger archaeological field, and we're also training the future workforce through interns. Altogether, it demonstrates why it's important to be out here doing this work."