Less than a mile south of the Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo county line sits a blue house with a secret: Inside rests a 92-year-old headless sphinx.
The plaster sphinx is a set piece left over from Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film epic, “The Ten Commandments,” which was filmed in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in 1923. And now it lives in the unassuming Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in Guadalupe.
The sphinx was recently removed from the dunes as part of a $120,000 excavation project and will be unveiled Friday in a new exhibit featuring the 10½-foot sphinx body, customized artwork, a separate sphinx head from a 2012 excavation and artifacts such as tobacco tins, bottles and photos from DeMille’s film set.
Lost in time
DeMille chose the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes for the prologue of “The Ten Commandments” because of its similarity to the Egyptian desert. He constructed 100-foot-tall gates, four 35-foot pharaoh statues and 21 sphinxes; a temporary city camp also set up shop near the set to house the workers.
Though the camp was marketed as “wholesome” in contemporary newspaper articles, artifacts from the recent excavation show that workers still managed to sneak in contraband, Dunes Center Executive Director Doug Jenzen said.
“In reality, it looks like everyone was having a pretty good time,” he said.
Jenzen said a number of Guadalupe residents also were enlisted as extras for the movie — the center has several photos from the filming that it is asking locals to look through to identify relatives or friends.
After filming concluded, DeMille left the gigantic set out in the dunes for unknown reasons, even though he was under contract with Santa Barbara County to return the dunes to the state they had been in before filming, Jenzen said.
Some speculate that he went over budget and couldn’t afford to disassemble and truck the large sets back to Hollywood. Others say he simply didn’t want it being used again in other films (a common practice in the movie industry at the time).
Whatever the reason, the “Lost City of DeMille” was left to be covered up by the sands of time.
A ‘buffalo wing’ in the sand
In 1990, shifting winds uncovered parts of the set, and local historical and conservancy groups began a 25-year excavation of the site.
In 2012, the Dunes Center and San Luis Obispo-based archaeological firm Applied Earthworks Inc. uncovered parts of a giant sphinx head, which it took back to the center’s museum for restoration and display.
Initially, the center planned to return to the site to remove the rest of the sphinx’s body once it obtained more funding, Jenzen said.
When they returned in October 2014, however, Jenzen and his team found that the winds had moved the sand and exposed the plaster statue to the elements, spreading pieces everywhere and making it difficult to handle them. When they attempted to pull the statue from the sand, the pieces crumbled, he said.
“It’s just so sad when that happens; it just crumbles in your hands,” Jenzen said. “And then it’s frustration. It’s just a roller coaster of emotion.”
Luck was on their side, however, when Jenzen and Burbank-based art restorer Amy Higgins noticed what looked like a “giant white buffalo wing” in the sand, he said.
“It was just sticking out of the sand,” Jenzen said. “We pointed it out to the archaeologist and were like, ‘Hey, what is this thing?’ ”
After some excavation, the group uncovered “Nora,” a roughly 101⁄2-foot section of one of the 21 original sphinx statues that was soon named after Jenzen’s late grandmother. A portion of Nora’s back leg had been sticking out of the sands — the “buffalo wing” Jenzen and Higgins had spotted.
Nora on view
Nora looks a little worse for wear compared with the shining white spectacle she once was. Through the cracks and plaster, a bullet hole is evident in her stomach, as well as some graffiti that says, “May 1930.” Her head and front legs are still somewhere under the dunes.
But that doesn’t lessen the excitement for Higgins, who has spent the past year painstakingly piecing Nora back together for the exhibit.
“I hesitate to say we’ve ‘restored’ her,” Higgins said as she pulled back a plastic tarp covering the sphinx body last week. “Restore implies that you are going to see something looking brand new, like we would take it back to its primo condition in 1923, but that’s not what we wanted to do here. We wanted it to look like an artifact.”
The rest of Nora may still be underneath the sands, and Jenzen said he hopes to get back out there in October and excavate the top half of the sphinx before it can be exposed to the air like the other excavated sphinx.
To do that, the Dunes Center is looking for about $85,000 to fund the next phase of excavation.
In the meantime, Nora and several other artifacts from the site — including tobacco tins, “cough syrup” bottles, a piece of preserved burnt toast from the film camp, the 2012 restored sphinx head and several photos from the film set — will be on display at the Dunes Center starting Saturday. The new exhibit will also feature art-deco themed travel posters created by artist Steve Thomas.
The center will hold a 1920s-themed unveiling party for the new exhibit on Friday.
“It’s really great,” Jenzen said of the project. “Even though (the set) is a replica of Ancient Egypt, it’s, you know, our own local version of Ancient Egypt. It’s a piece of the local history.”