GUADALUPE (AP) — Archaeologists working in the sand dunes along the Central California coast are digging up ancient sphinxes — but these are made of plaster.
More than 90 years ago, legendary filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille erected 21 giant sphinxes and an 800-foot-wide temple as a set for the silent, black-and-white classic movie “The Ten Commandments.”
But in 1923, when filming was over, DeMille abandoned them there among the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in Santa Barbara County.
Now, archaeologists are digging for the fragile plaster sphinxes and this week began excavations on one that they hope will eventually be on display at the nearby Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, which has raised $120,000 for the dig, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of site,” said M. Colleen Hamilton, a senior historical archaeologist with Applied EarthWorks and project director for the excavation. “I’ve worked on sites all over the country, and I think this one could only happen in California.”
Crews began digging in 2012 and found one sphinx but money for the project ran out. Parts of that sphinx’s head are on display at the Dunes Center.
When they returned this year for the body, they found the wind had shifted the sand, exposing the plaster and damaging it beyond repair.
But the wind had also revealed a hint of the foot and leg of another sphinx, the Times reported.
“It was a really pleasant surprise when we found out it was almost a full sphinx,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.
The second sphinx was missing much of its face — but archaeologists had been looking for an intact body to put on display to match the earlier head.
To keep the fragile plaster from cracking, the team covered the pieces of the sphinx in liquid consolidant and wrapped them in cheesecloth, Hamilton said. They removed sand from the body and filled it with foam to keep it stable.
Residents of Guadalupe, a small farming community, left the set alone for decades out of respect, said Shirley Boydstun, 86, a member of the Rancho de Guadalupe Historical Society.
“The old-timers have always known it was out there,” she said.