I saw a report on a sphinx head being uncovered in the California desert and wondered for a moment whether there had been some tremendous discovery of a previously unknown ancient civilization. Not quite! It turns out that it was a lost city — but one dating from 1923, not the time of the pharaohs.
The lost city was constructed for the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie The Ten Commandments. DeMille, who was legendary for filming extravagant, big-budget epics with colossal sets and enormous casts of extras, had plaster sphinxes and other Egyptian artifacts constructed for use in the film, at huge expense, to make the film look more realistic. Then, when the filming was over, and it was too expensive to relocate the set, DeMille decreed that rather than risk it being used by rival filmmakers, it all should be buried under the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, where the sphinxes and other materials have remained for nearly a century. The Ten Commandments then went on to receive critical acclaim for its sweeping and realistic scenes.
DeMille’s decision to entombed the set beneath the desert sands became the stuff of Hollywood legend, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that people began talking about actually trying to find the buried set pieces. Recently, archaeologists have begun to unearth the pieces and some of the other debris cast off by the film crew. One of the uncovered items is a perfectly preserved sphinx head.
These days, it’s hard to imagine the ludicrous extravagance that routinely occurred during the early days of Hollywood — but what better evidence of that extravagance than dazzling set pieces, carefully constructed by craftsman at significant expense, simply being buried in desert sands and then abandoned? And it’s even harder to imagine that modern environmental authorities would allow entire sets and film crew trash to simply be buried beneath natural sand dunes.
The world was a different place 100 years ago.