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Sphinx restoration nearly complete for Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes excavation project

Randol White/KCBX

A major restoration project is underway behind a nondescript garage door at a home on the Nipomo Mesa. The large space was donated to the nearby Dunes Center as a location to work on a big chunk of a sphinx statue, buried along with other Hollywood set pieces under the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes for the better part of a century.

Restoration artist Amy Higgins travels up the coast from her home in Los Angeles to do this highly detailed work.

"Yes it is fragile, it is plaster that has been sitting outside and it was wet and damp in the sand, so as it dries out it does get harder and more stable, but when it was wet, oh it was so hard trying to lift the pieces because they were just like a wet rag," said Higgins.

She and another worker are taking several broken up pieces of plaster and putting them together like a puzzle, so that eventually the sphinx can be displayed for visitors to the Dunes Center.

"It had to come out in several pieces," Higgins said. "We did get one really nice big piece with the foot, and the knee and the shoulder, but the chest, unfortunately, came out in ten pieces, so we're putting it back together so it looks like more of a whole, and you get the rounded chest and the shoulder."

Doug Jensen is the Executive Director of the Dunes Center. He's overseen much of the effort to find and recover these artifacts of Hollywood history.

"In 1923, Cecil B. Demille decided he was going to make this film, The Ten Commandments, and he hauled out this giant movie set, had thousands of people working in the dunes to build it," said Jensen. "Filming took place in May and June of that year and then they just left it. For a long time we heard stories about it being exploded with dynamite or being buried in a trench, but after this last excavation we looked at where some of the remnants of other sphinxes were in relation to this one, and it sort of looked like they just left it."

Jensen and Higgins say, when finished, visitors should not expect to see an elaborate set or sphinx as it would have looked at the time of the original filming—instead Jensen says they're working to put it in a state of "arrested decay."

"We didn't want it to deteriorate any more in the elements, so we pulled it out, but we aren't going to make it look like it's brand new again," said Jensen. "There's a whole lot of history here, it's the filming, it's the community who came out and had their photos taken with the sphinxes over time, and we want the whole story to be represented."

This latest edition to the Hollywood artifacts portion of the Dunes Center is expected to go on display in early 2015.