June 22, 2013

The Lost City of DeMille, Buried in the Guadalupe Dunes

It's not really a ghost town.

It's not really urban exploration.

This one falls a bit more under...archaeology.

You see, Cecil B. DeMille recreated Ancient Egypt - "The City of the Pharoah" - in the Sahara-like dunes of California's Central Coast for his movie The Ten Commandments (the silent, black and white predecessor to the better-known, 1956 color version starring Charlton Heston). In an endeavor nearly as mighty as building the pyramids themselves, DeMille hired 1600 workers to build a giant Egyptian palace, gate, and statues of sphinxes and pharoahs.

But after a month of production in 1923 - when there was still a lot of excitement over the discovery of King Tut's tomb - DeMille ordered the entire set be buried in the dunes, never to be discovered and used by low budget filmmakers looking to piggyback on his expenditure. In an attempt to destroy his set, he actually ended up preserving it (somewhat), making it the last remaining film set from the early era of Hollywood moviemaking.

This "Lost City" was actually discovered by some movie buff historians who studied DeMille's autobiography and used ground-mapping to identify where the 20th century Egyptian ruins might be. Even though these dunes blow and shift a few feet every year, sometimes exposing a piece of plaster  which might be recognizable or unrecognizable, crumbling, and in dire need of preservation. And then El Nino hit, blowing even more surface sand off the dunes, and exposing some of the relics. Unfortunately, even despite knowing where they were and even seeing parts of them, because of lack of permitting and loss of funding, they had to wait nearly 30 years until official, proper excavation could begin in 2011. In the meantime, the exposure of the site has also destabilized it, not only because of natural winter weather, but also leaving it vulnerable to vandals and looters.

The dunes sprawl up and down the coast, from Santa Barbara County all the way up to Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County, but the key archaeological site of interest is at the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes County Park area, which is surrounded both to the north and south by off-highway vehicular recreation areas, as well as a lake and some vacation-friendly beaches.

There is a paved access road that leads you through the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve and down to the beach...

...and while driving on it, you suddenly realize you're driving on the dunes - through the dunes.

Down at the beach, you can see the ripples in the sand fields, and understand why this evoked the Sahara for location scouts - though beyond them, the coastal dunes feature small hummocks where low-growing plants cling, despite the harsh wind and salty sea air.

Much of this landscape is preserved, not only for the benefit of the dunes themselves, but also for sensitive dune and coastal species like the endangered western snowy plower and California least tern.

And as you drive through slowly, noticing the old paved access road which literally broke in half and fell off... wonder, where exactly is this lost city of buried treasure? Where did DeMille think no one would ever find his extravagant, monumental set from his silent epic?

As a ranger pointed out, it's all the way back there, in the more stable (though still shifting) back dunes, made of rich soil and covered in dense shrub.

Before visiting the dunes themselves, I stopped by the Dunes Center to view some of the preserved relics on display. They'd just found and added another piece to their collection. "Do you think there's a lot more out there?" I asked the docent.

"Oh yeah. It's all over out there. There's a lot we haven't found," he said, shaking his head, remarking that the main set alone was 720 feet wide. There are literally tons of relics out there.

And if we don't find them, as DeMille joked in his autobiography, archaeologists a thousand years from now will be scratching their heads trying to figure out how Egyptian ruins ended up in California.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley
Photo Essay: Upon the 90th Anniversary of the Egyptian Theatre

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