Shifting sands reveal 'Ten Commandments' artifacts in Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes

October 2014 excavation of Cecil B. DeMille artifacts from Ten Commandments set in the Guadalupe Dunes.
Photo by Doug Jenzen, Executive Director
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center
October 2014 excavation of Cecil B. DeMille artifacts from Ten Commandments set in the Guadalupe Dunes. Photo by Doug Jenzen, Executive Director The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center

Two years ago, archaeologists pulled a massive plaster sphinx head from the sand, a relic from a silent film made 91 years ago on the wind-whipped Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.

In early October, Doug Jenzen and a team of archaeologists returned to recover the rest of the sphinx — the torso and rear end — discovered during the 2012 excavation of relics abandoned by Cecil B. DeMille after filming his 1923 silent film “The Ten Commandments” on this stretch of sand just south of San Luis Obispo County.

But when they arrived Oct. 1 for a pre-project survey, Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, found that wind had blown about three feet of sand from the artifacts, exposing them to the elements. The pieces had deteriorated.

Nearby, however, the wind had uncovered part of another sphinx. One of its legs, resembling a white chicken wing, was peeking out of the sand.

After consultation with a senior historical archaeologist at San Luis Obispo-based Applied Earthworks Inc., Jenzen decided to direct some of his team’s attention to the second artifact.

Further work revealed that the exposed sphinx — one of 21 statues that lined an avenue leading to the entrance of an ancient Egyptian city set — was in much better shape than expected.

“We were extremely fortunate to find the second one,” Jenzen said Oct. 16, just three days after work wrapped up at the site.

Still, the team faced difficulties. The pieces were made out of plaster but are as thin as a piece of paper — and hollow; Jenzen likened them to chocolate Easter rabbits.

“Over the years, the middle has filled with sand,” he said. “When you take out the sand, it collapses.”

The archaeologists had planned to coat the pieces in epoxy and cheesecloth to protect them during the removal process, but the humid air prevented the epoxy from sticking.

Instead, they built supports and used spray foam insulation to hold the larger chunks of plaster together as sand was removed from their hollow insides.

The team, which included Cal Poly interns and a Native American monitor from the local Chumash tribe, managed to dig up most of the sphinx’s body, but not its head or front paws. The artifacts were hauled off-site and are now drying out in an undisclosed, secure location.

Later, an art conservator will restore and preserve the pieces, which could be displayed at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe as soon as next summer. They’ll join the artifacts already on display in Guadalupe — including the sphinx head unveiled in June 2013, one of its paws and other items abandoned after filming finished.

The total project cost about $120,000, with funds coming from grants and donations, including an $80,000 grant from Santa Barbara County’s Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund, $13,000 from the Dunes Collaborative and $3,000 from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The Dunes Center is now seeking an additional $2,700 to cover the cost of the restoration.

Last Thursday, Jenzen gave Tribune photographer David Middlecamp and me a tour of the site. As we carefully picked our way around the sand dunes, Jenzen pointed out many rusty nails, half-buried glass bottles, an old safety pin and a candle — remnants from the film production.

“This movie set acts as a way to look into the past of what life was like,” Jenzen said. “People in the ’20s didn’t have disposable plates and silverware like we have now, so we have china patterns that they brought here.”

Nearby, chunks of wood and dozens of pieces of plaster stuck out of the sand. It seems tempting for Jenzen and the archaeologists to try to go back and collect all of the parts of the set, but the pieces are so fragile that many would simply crumble if anyone tried to move them.

As Jenzen said during the tour, the pieces were built to last only two months — 91 years ago.

The Dunes Center is also running out of room to display the objects, and funding is always competitive for projects.

So for the moment, the nonprofit is done with its work of trying to bring back the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille."

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