The city was stunning. There were four 35-foot-tall statues of Pharaoh Ramses the Great and an avenue of 21 sphinx statues, each around 13 feet tall and 22 feet long. There were thousands of humans and even more camels, horses, sheep and donkeys. They called it “City of the Pharaoh” — and it was fake, a creation not of Egyptians but of Hollywood.
Cecil B. DeMille spent four months searching for the perfect location for his silent-era film “The Ten Commandments” before settling on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It was there, in 1923, in the middle of 300 square miles of sand dunes, that he built what was then thought to be the largest and most expensive movie set ever constructed.
Descriptions of the set are filled with numbers: 550,000 feet of lumber, 300 tons of plaster and 25,000 pounds of nails used to construct a city designed by Art Deco artist Paul Iribe that was almost 800 feet wide and 120 feet tall. The number of people — 3,500 — and animals — 5,000 — used in filming was just as impressive.
And then the elaborate structures were left behind. Forgotten. DeMille wanted it that way. Transporting the set back to Hollywood was too expensive, so DeMille left it in the dunes. To ensure no one else could use it, he was said to have blown it up or buried it. A 12-story-tall city disappeared.
Except, “there is no archeological evidence that it was blown up,” says Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Dunes Center in Guadalupe. “There is no scatter pattern that would be associated with an explosion. Personally, I don’t think it was buried, because everything is pretty much exactly where it was during filming.”
Jenzen believes the city disappeared over time not because it was blown up or buried, but because it was left alone. Over the years, the plaster statues that had become covered in sand survived, while those that remained exposed to the elements crumbled. Filmmaker Peter Brosnan’s three-decade effort to uncover what remains is chronicled in the 2016 documentary, “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille.”
Today, the city remains lost. More or less.
“We don’t know for sure how much is still out there,” Jenzen says.
One reason for the slow progress of rediscovery is the site’s status as a bird and plant sanctuary, making it off limits for half the year and accessible only with various permits the other half. The other reason is money.
Each time the Dunes Center goes out on a dig it costs as much as $150,000, and it takes several years to scrape together enough donations and grants to fund an excavation. Unfortunately, even then, success isn’t assured. A sphinx excavated in 2014 fell apart. A second sphinx found at the site is in much better shape. One arm is already on display at the Dunes Center, and on July 21 the center plans to reveal the latest finds: a head — which weighed 300 pounds wet when excavated from the damp sand — and chest.
Amy Higgins, one of two artists restoring the head, has been working on the recovery project since “way back when it was 20 boxes in Peter Brosnan’s garage.”
Piecing together the statue was a puzzle in itself. There were no plans. Higgins and fellow artist Christine Muratore Evans relied on photos, using images that feature a man standing next to the sphinx to guess the statue’s height. All of the unknowns make it hard for Evans to know when to keep hunting for missing pieces and when to “give it up to the ghost.”
As Jenzen says. “One of the things about archeology is you don’t know what you’re going to find until you find it.”