Hidden for more than 90 years beneath the rolling sand dunes of Guadalupe, California, an enormous, plaster sphinx from the 1923 blockbuster movie "The Ten Commandments" has been rediscovered and is now above ground.
The public will be able to see the sphinx on display as early as next year, once it has been reconstructed — a necessity since it became weather-beaten during its stint beneath the sand, said Doug Jenzen, the executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, who oversaw the recent excavation.
The roughly 15-foot-tall (4.6 meters) sphinx is one of 21 that lined the path to Pharaoh's City in the 1923 silent hit, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He later remade the film, with Charlton Heston as Moses, in 1956. [See Photos of the Film's Giant Spinxes & Excavation]
"[The 1923 film] was one of the largest movie sets ever made, because they didn't have special effects," Jenzen told Live Science. "So anything that they wanted to look large, they had to build large." The facade to Pharaoh's City stood an estimated 12 stories tall and about 720 feet (219 meters) across. "It's giant," Jenzen said.
The film crew originally built the sphinxes' body parts in Los Angeles, and transported them about 165 miles (266 kilometers) 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.
"We'd work during the day, and we'd watch the movie at night to figure out what we were finding," said M. Colleen Hamilton, a historical archaeology program manager and senior historical archaeologist with Applied EarthWorks in California.
The first excavation took place in the 1990s, when the Dunes Center, then a part of the Nature Conservancy, 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," he said. "These guys had a lot of really good times before takes."
In 2012, the Dunes Center invited an archaeology group to survey the set again. This time, the archaeologists found the head of a sphinx about "the size of a pool table" buried in the dunes, Jenzen said.
The archaeologists excavated the fragile plaster of Paris head, now on display at the Dunes Center, but they didn't have time to exhume its body. Now, two years later, Applied EarthWorks returnedwith the goal of finishing the project.
But it wasn't to be, said Hamilton. Although the archaeologists had buried the body in sand in 2012 to protect it, the wind had uncovered the sphinx's remains, leaving a greying, crumbling mess.
"The site is basically being destroyed through erosion," Hamilton said. "It's become more critical to try to salvage some materials before they disappear." [Sand Scenes: California's Shifting Dunes]
The wind, however, helped them find the body of another sphinx. Sand had filled its hollow insides, and exposure to the moist beach air had dulled its red and ochre colors, making a careful excavation paramount.
From Oct. 6 to 14, the archaeology team, headed by Applied EarthWorks archaeologist Kholood Abdo Hintzman, slowly excavated the sphinx's body. To keep the paper-thin plaster of Paris from cracking, they wrapped it in cheesecloth soaked in a preservation chemical. Then, they carefully funneled sand out of the hollow statue, replacing the empty space with expanding insulation foam, Hamilton said.
The team could only work a few hours each day. In the morning, the thick, moist fog prevented them from doing their fragile work, and strong winds in the afternoon also stymied their progress. But, after eight days, they finally removed the body and placed it in an off-site building to dry and shrink to its normal size.
Fans of old Hollywood will be able to see the reconstructed body of the sphinx at the Dunes Center in mid- to late 2015, along with the head of the other reconstructed sphinx, Jenzen said. The movie itself is a piece of history, as it was the most expensive film made at that time, costing upward of $1 million, he said. Some scenes were filmed in Technicolor, and the crew used Jell-O as a special effect during the Biblical parting of the Red Sea.
"I think it's a great piece of Americana," Jenzen said. "But you have to hunker down to watch the whole thing, because it's more than three hours long and it's silent."