Yes, you read the headline correctly — a 20th century plaster sphinx was unearthed in Guadalupe, California. You may be wondering why a sphinx was built less than 100-years-ago and left to be buried in the dunes of California. The answer lies in a 1923 blockbuster silent film, The Ten Commandments.
According to Live Science, an enormous, plaster sphinx was constructed for the silent film 91 years ago. The roughly 15-foot-tall sphinx is one of 21 that lined the path to Pharaoh’s City in the 1923 silent hit, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The hit film was later remade, this time with sound, with Charlton Heston as Moses in 1956.
Archeology, the publication, notes that the plaster sphinx was heavily eroded from spending so much time in harsh weather and being buried beneath the sand. Archeologists decided to unearth the piece of Hollywood history because they though they may be running out of time to salvage it. The hollow sphinxes eventually collapsed under the wind and rain, and were covered by the shifting sand dunes. Historical archaeologist M. Colleen Hamilton of Applied EarthWorks said that it was critical that the sphinx be salvaged now.
“The site is basically being destroyed through erosion. It’s become more critical to try to salvage some materials before they disappear.”
Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, explained the reason behind such an elaborate prop for a silent film. Jenzen notes that the 1923 film was one of the largest movie sets ever made. Due to the fact that they didn’t have special effects when the movie was produced, anything that they wanted to look large, they had to build large. This meant that the sphinxes needed to be extremely large. One of the biggest pieces from the movie was the façade of the Pharaoh’s Palace, which stood at an estimated 12 stories tall and 720 feet across.
The movie producers went to great lengths to ensure the production was as believable as possible. The film crew originally built the sphinxes’ body parts in Los Angeles and transported them about 165 miles to Guadalupe, where they assembled them into giant, hollow statues. The crew even built an extra sphinx so that the actors playing slaves could drag it around during filming, Jenzen said.
Legend has it that after filming ended, the movie crew dynamited the set and buried the sphinxes in a trench, but Jenzen has found little evidence of such a dramatic end. Instead, the wind, rain, and sand likely collapsed and buried a large part of the set under the ever-shifting dunes. The sphinxes are in roughly the same place they were during filming, he said. In fact, the film helped guide an excavation of the site in 2012.
It appears then after filming, the crew simply left the site and moved on with their lives. Therefore, a number of interesting items have been found during the excavations of the site. The first excavation, which took place in the 1990s, had archaeologists comb through the abandoned movie site. They found dozens of small artifacts including tobacco tins and cough syrup bottles — likely holding a substitute for alcohol during the Prohibition Era, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, Jenzen said.
“What objects like that tell us is that there wasn’t a whole lot to do at the making of this movie. These guys had a lot of really good times before takes.”