A recent excavation of “The Ten Commandments” movie set buried nearly a century ago in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes revealed a treasure beyond original expectations.
The excavation was aimed at retrieving body parts of a sphinx from the buried set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 film “The Ten Commandments.”
However, the team also found a gigantic terra-cotta-colored head, the first piece discovered to depict a shade beyond white or light peach.
“It was a pretty epic find,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.
“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” Jenzen said. “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 historical movie production such as the fact that objects in black and white films were actually painted extremely intense colors.”
While the silent movie featured black-and-white photography, some color likely was added to the sets to create shades and depth perception for the film, Jenzen said.
According to local lore, when filming was done, the movie’s old set, including pharaohs, sphinxes, and colossal temple gates, was toppled and buried in the sand dunes, becoming known as “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille.”
The movie set, designed by Paul Iribe, known as “the Father of Art Deco,” reportedly featured 21 sphinxes with pieces towering 12 stories high and 800 feet wide.
The ruins have been the focus of missions, led by director Peter Brosnan and including young filmmakers, to find and recover the pieces since the 1980s. Brosnan’s mission is recounted in a documentary, “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” available for rent or DVD.
The newly found face, estimated at 300 pounds, measures 5½ feet by 3 feet by 8 feet.
“It was in such amazing shape,” Jenzen said. “I noticed that everyone from the archeologists to the artists to some of the donors that we had taken out there, everyone wanted to see the face. They weren’t really interested in the body that I intended to get.”
Excavation work began in late October after fundraising by the Dunes Center, with Applied EarthWorks hired to uncover the artifacts while freelance art restorers also were on site.
The additional find of the head marks a success for a frustrating excavation that this time dealt with extreme temperature changes and rain, both of which put the plaster pieces in peril and cut into the planned 10-day project.
They ended up stretching the budget to 12 days, but Jenzen said better conditions would have allowed them to recover more pieces.
“We focused on the face and it was a good decision because it was in extremely good shape given that it’s 94-year-old Plaster of Paris that’s been buried at the beach,” Jenzen said.
Finding and unearthing the head proved simple. Getting it off the dunes took creativity.
“We had an interesting adventure of how do we get it out of this swimming-pool-size hole we just dug so we fastened surfboards to plywood and created a sled,” Jenzen said.
They used sand to build a temporary ramp to drag the makeshift shed into the truck with professional movers later helping relocate the head to its temporary storage unit.
The head will spend weeks drying out before the art restorers begin their work, which could be unveiled by late July.
But the discovery of the face will mean more money will be needed for restoration of an already-costly endeavor.
Each excavation and restoration project, including temporary permits to conduct the dig, costs about $135,000, with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association giving the final funds that allowed the Dunes Center to launch the recent excavation project.
“It’s an example of the diverse group of people who support this project,” Jensen said. “Everyone from ERG Resources, the local oil company, to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — it’s definitely a project that brings a lot of different entities to the same table.”
Jenzen still hopes to retrieve the pieces left behind, expecting the process would be more efficient due to the experience gained by previous efforts.
The discovery of the terra-cotta-colored face came as the Dunes Center prepares to launch a $5 million capital fundraising campaign to move into the former home of the Far Western Tavern on Guadalupe Street. The goal is to raise the funds within two years.
In early 2018, the Dunes Center plans to hold community meetings, thanks to a grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara, to collect input on what should be included in the new facility.