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94-Year-Old 'Ten Commandments' Sphinx Unearthed in Coastal Dunes

Archaeologists have unearthed a 94-year-old, brightly colored sphinx that once graced the set of the 1923 Hollywood blockbuster, "The Ten Commandments," according to an announcement released Monday (Nov. 27) from the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

The 300-lb. (136 kilogram) plaster-of-paris sphinx is in remarkably good condition, said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Dunes Center.

"The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs," Jenzen said in a statement. "The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact." Even more exciting are the sphinx's "extremely intense colors," which were likely applied to help the sphinx stand out in the silent, black-and-white movie, he added. [See photos of the newly uncovered Hollywood sphinx]

"The Ten Commandments" film was a masterpiece in its day. Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille had Paul Iribe, a French artist known as "the father of art deco," create 21 sphinxes for the movie. DeMille placed the sphinxes in the movie's biblical Exodus set, where he filmed scenes of the Jews toiling under the Egyptians and later escaping through a parted Red Sea. DeMille filmed the Exodus portion of the movie in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, because it looked like sandy Egypt, Jenzen noted.

The Exodus set was enormous. It had pharaohs, sphinxes and colossal temple gates that, in all, reached 12 stories high and spanned 800 feet (240 meters) in width, Jenzen said. But legend has it that DeMille realized two things when he was done filming: The set was too expensive to move and too valuable to leave behind for rival filmmakers to steal, Jenzen said.

DeMille solved his dilemma by having the Exodus set buried in the sand.

A sideways shot of the sphinx. Notice its detailed necklace, designed by Paul Iribe. (Image credit: Dunes Center)

Decades later, director and screenwriter Peter Brosnan and a group of filmmakers decided to search for artifacts from the film that had been buried in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. In the 1990s, excavators successfully uncovered everyday objects from the set, including prohibition liquor bottles, makeup, tobacco tins and even a piece of burned toast. Later excavations yielded bits and pieces of the fragile sphinxes.

The newfound terracotta-colored sphinx measures 5.5 feet by 3 feet by 8 feet (1.6 m by 1 m by 2.4 m). It's fortunate that the set was buried in sand, Jenzen said, because that material allows water to drain. If the set were buried in another material, such as dirt, the plaster-of-paris sphinxes would have turned to mush, Jenzen added.

After the newly discovered sphinx is restored, likely by the summer of 2018, it will be put on display at the Dunes Center museum in downtown Guadalupe. The excavation is ongoing, but expensive. Dig permits for each project cost about $135,000, Jenzen said.

Those who can't make it to the Dunes Center can still learn about the excavation in Brosnan's 2017 documentary "The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille," which includes interviews with the dune's neighbors, who remember when "The Ten Commandments" was filmed.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel
As an associate editor for Live Science, Laura Geggel covers general science, including the environment, archaeology and amazing animals. She has written for The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site covering autism research. Laura grew up in Seattle and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis before completing her graduate degree in science writing at NYU. When not writing, you'll find Laura playing Ultimate Frisbee.