Enough wind has blown over the past thousand years to completely bury old civilizations, and just in time for new populations to build on top of them. That’s the thought that motivates archaeologists each time they pick up a shovel, and it’s what they were reminded of when, during a dig in Santa Barbara, California, they found themselves face to face with history. But the history they uncovered wasn’t what it seemed. As it turns out, even the deserts of California might still be hiding a few “ancient” secrets.

When the team began digging in the California desert, they found some of the usual junk you might stumble onto: old bottles, tobacco tins, makeup trays. Then, they struck something hard.


Brushing away dirt and sand, the archaeologists were met with a curved nose, delicate ears, and the ridges of a grand crown. The features didn’t belong to a centuries-old American statue, but to something slightly more exotic: the head of a sphinx.

Christina Muratore Evans

Of course, the archaeologists were immediately filled with questions, mainly: How? What in the world was an ancient Egyptian sphinx head doing in Santa Barbara? Luckily, it didn’t take much analysis for the archaeologists to realize something was off about the sphinx head.

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An actual sphinx head from ancient Egypt would have been carved out of a material like bedrock. The one discovered in California, though imposing, was made out of a much lighter material, one that left powder on the archaeologists’ hands.

That’s when they realized that this sphinx head wasn’t from the deserts of Egypt. It hadn’t been smuggled to Santa Barbara by thieves or teleported by aliens. Instead, the 300-pound head came from the most unexpected place of all.

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At first, people thought the sphinx head came from the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston. But since the film is known for its groundbreaking special effects, the head had to come from an even older film…which it did.

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

You see, the 1956 version wasn’t DeMille’s first experience with The Ten Commandments. Back in 1923, he endeavored to turn the biblical story into one of the first “epic” films ever made. Unlike his ‘56 version of the film, though, he couldn’t rely on computer-generated effects.

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

The filming of DeMille’s 1923 version took place at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in — you guessed it — Santa Barbara, which DeMille thought resembled the Egyptian desert. Set designers crafted Moses’ world from hand, and what they built was massive.

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

The sheer size of the film’s props is the stuff of legend: four 35-foot tall Pharaoh statues, 110-foot tall gates, 8 lions, an Egyptian temple, and of course, 21 sphinxes were all, reportedly, built by over 1,600 workers. 

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

The set was one of the biggest and most expensive ever built at the time. It stretched 12 stories high and 800 feet wide, and took 25,000 nails and 250 tons of plaster to construct. Weirdest of all, though, was how the sphinx heads were painted.

Because much of the film was in black-and-white, the sphinxes were painted in such a way that lighting and shadows on set would make them pop out without Technicolor. When uncovered nearly 100 years later, though, they looked a little different than on film.

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Archaeologists were blown away by the “extremely intense” paints used to make the sphinx heads stand out. Some of the film was black-and-white, but important sequences were filmed in Technicolor, including one of the most vital scenes in the movie.

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

The parting of the Red Sea is integral in both versions, but the ‘23 film had to use creativity to bring it to life. The “parted sea” look came from a slab of Jell-O that was filmed as it jiggled, making it look like solid “waves.”

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

Production was crammed into three months, and despite bringing his ambitious vision to life, no one was happier to finish filming than Cecil B. DeMille. At this point, he was faced with a conundrum: What to do with the set?

One of Hollywood’s first “epic” films, DeMille had a love/hate relationship with what he’d created. He’d basically organized the construction of a city that was too expensive to move and too valuable to leave behind. Worst of all, he knew the reality of the situation.


Back then, Hollywood filmmakers would reuse sets and props in an effort to cut production costs. But DeMille, ever the artist, wasn’t about to let some other filmmaker reap the benefits of his own creation…so he made a controversial decision.

The Ten Commandments/Paramount Pictures

“If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast,” DeMille wrote in his autobiography.

Yes, DeMille decided that if he couldn’t use his elaborate set, no one else would, either. He ordered that the entire construction be blown up, and what wasn’t completely blown to smithereens was buried right there in the sand.

“There was no such thing as over the top for Cecil B. DeMille,” said author Scott Eyman. Indeed, DeMille was known for his controlling and authoritative directing style, and for berating everyone from extras to the top-billed actor if they didn’t meet his standards.

DeMille’s intense ways is how his man-made city ended up underground. Small scraps of “artifacts” from The Ten Commandments film have been found over the years, but the biggest surprise came when archaeologists uncovered that almost-intact sphinx head in the sand.

“Given that these objects have lasted 94 years, even though they were only built to last for two months during filming, it really speaks to the craftsmanship,” said Doug Jenzen of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center. Still, recovering these artifacts will be a challenge.

The first sphinx head, which was made out of Plaster of Paris, crumbled into powder when touched. The second time around, though, the archaeologists used a foam spray to strengthen the interior of the head, which kept it intact as they extracted it from the sand.

The head may not hail from the vast deserts of ancient Egypt, but it’s still history — Hollywood history. “Movie sets just don’t exist anymore from that Golden Age of Hollywood,” Jenzen said. Now a piece of one does…along with unknown scraps still buried beneath the dunes.

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From its very founding, Hollywood was built on skirting legality for profit. Early filmmakers set up shop in Los Angeles to avoid paying dues to Thomas Edison, who lived on the East Coast and held patents for almost every piece of filmmaking equipment available.

Studios scrapped it out finding their footing during the silent film era, but after the 1920s, eight studios came out victorious. The Big Five — MGM, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and Paramount — monopolized most of the town, sharing their domain with three smaller studios: United Artists, Universal, and Columbia.

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War in Europe made Hollywood gobs of money. Because countries overseas were preoccupied with fighting, the American cinemascape advanced in the entertainment race during WWI. Americans craved lighthearted, escapist media, and shelled out money constantly in theaters.

United Artists

To keep up with demand, studios needed stars — lots of them. Sharklike talent scouts scavenged local playhouses, restaurants, and even streets for new talent. Most stars were pounced upon for their sex appeal, like Lana Turner, whose form-fitting clothes earned her the nickname “Sweater Girl.”

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Fresh faces were brought in for a screen test, and if they looked good on film, the studios took care of the rest. Actors were enrolled in charm schools, put on strict fitness and diet regimens, and even required to get plastic surgery.

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If an actor wanted to play a variety of characters in those days, they could forget about it. Everyone was typecast, and actors were contracted as either a lead, a supporting role, or an extra. You played the roles your contract demanded, and once the studio found a successful character type for you, that was your forever niche.

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Moreover, stars didn’t leave work behind when they clocked out. Their personal lives were micromanaged by studios to make sure they stayed marketable. Affairs, pregnancies, and substance abuse problems were kiboshed, and nobody was allowed to be gay.


If stars were found to break rules too often, the studios to which they were contracted could forcibly loan them out to other studios, as punishment for misbehavior. Doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize stars didn’t get paid for movies they did outside their home studio.

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Then, on top of an already manipulative industry, the infamous legend that was the Hays Code came along. When the government threatened to ban movies with content it found unacceptable, studios put their own self-censoring system into place.

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This code, named for MPPDA president Will H. Hays, banned onscreen sexuality, feminism, nudity, biracial relationships, non-hetero characters, and even pregnancy. Villains always had to be punished by the end of a movie, and married characters had to sleep in separate beds.


Moreover, the “happy ending” became the default way to wrap up a movie. Gone were the European ways of the silent film era, where characters dressed and behaved as they pleased, faced real stakes, and pondered the dark truths of life.

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Because American movie characters weren’t allowed to be pregnant, the actors who played them couldn’t be pregnant either. Besides the Hays Code issue, studios believed pregnancy made a star less marketable, and pressured women into having abortions.


As soon as women could get back on their feet after these life-threatening procedures, they had to go back to the studios, which were churning out movies at factory speed. At their peak, studios produced a film every single week.


Screenwriters were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for material. Julius Epstein, who wrote Casablanca, landed in L.A. on a Friday in 1933, and by midnight that night he was ghostwriting for two other writers who were struggling to meet a deadline for Warner Brothers that Monday.

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Did Epstein have an education in screenwriting? No. The writers took him to the movies that weekend and pointed out transitions onscreen, like “fade out” and “dissolve,” so he’d know what terms to use. He got practice by writing an original story every night.

Stars also had to work insane hours to make sure movies were finished on time. During her heyday, Judy Garland worked 6-day weeks, singing and dancing often for 18-hour shifts. The studio gave her amphetamines to stay awake, and knockout pills to get her to sleep.

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When these drug-addicted young actors inevitably got into trouble, the studios had answers for that, too. Fixers, like Eddie Mannix, protected stars from the law, covering up scandals and arranging under-the-table deals with local police to keep the public in the dark and the studios’ reputations intact.

The Times

And when news needed to be leaked to help market a movie or take down a rival star, studios had direct ties to gossip columnists who’d write whatever they were told. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons exposed juicy secrets about Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman, making huge waves at the time.

Eventually, stars began leveraging their fame, and their ability to make the studios rich, to get what they wanted. Usually, this was better hours and fairer working conditions. Audiences loved them, so if they got fired for their demands, they’d just work for another studio.

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Later in the century, studios’ power dissolved, and agents took on the role of packaging scripts with directors and writers to get projects funded. Nowadays, that packaging power is finally being questioned, and the industry is shaking up yet again.

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But back in the days of the Great Depression, American audiences wanted to watch something wholesome and sweet that’d take their minds off problems like economic collapse, inflation, and hunger. Shirley Temple’s sunny disposition was just the solution, though backstage, she struggled with Old Hollywood’s style.

Shirley had been taking dance lessons from the age of 3. Skilled in tap, rumba, and even tango, she was a bright, personable child and could memorize lines easily. When talent scouts came calling, she was ready.

Shirley Temple Archive

20th Century Fox set up a brand for Shirley that emphasized her qualities as an “emotional healer” or “good fairy.” In her movies, she played characters that brought others together despite their differences — laying the foundation for her later career.

20th Century Fox

Wherever she went, people would clamor over her. “They like the work you do,” her mother said, putting a practical lens on the fame and giving young Shirley an appreciation for the effects of her actions.

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In her Hollywood heyday, she constantly attended events where political figures were present. Temple learned how to navigate their social world, although it took some practice: when she was ten, she fired a slingshot at Eleanor Roosevelt’s backside!

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As Shirley got into her teens, Hollywood began to tire her, and she looked for a new adventure. Her mother saw the opportunity to enroll her in a private, all-girls’ school, which Shirley adored: after an isolated childhood, being around girls her age interested her far more than movie sets.

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Meanwhile, Shirley’s widespread fame began to fade. The Depression was over, and she was growing out of the sparkly-eyed innocence that had captivated the nation. She slowed down to making only one or two movies per year — but she had new goals on the horizon.

20th Century Fox

While at Westlake School, Shirley became obsessed with the idea of romance, and had a number of beaus. “I wanted to be the first girl in my class to get married,” she said. Her caring disposition hadn’t left her; she couldn’t wait to raise a family.

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By the time Shirley was 17, she had her sights — and a wedding date — set. On September 19, 1945, she wed high school beau John Agar in a highly-publicized ceremony at Wilshire Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

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The wedding was everything Shirley had dreamed, but the reality of marriage was not. Just ten days into their honeymoon, John began drinking heavily and was about to be sent overseas as a U.S. Army sergeant.

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Over the next four years, John’s drinking got worse, and though the couple had a daughter together, their relationship soured beyond repair. In 1949, when she was 21, Shirley demanded a divorce.

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At the same time, Shirley’s rank as box office #1 had been usurped by Mickey Rooney. She was no longer seen as a little girl: her contract with Fox was terminated, and in a contract meeting with MGM, the hiring producer exposed himself to her.

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Shirley decided it was time for a change. She announced her retirement from the film industry, won custody of Linda Susan — her and John’s daughter — and took her immediate family on a vacation to Hawaii.

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It was on that vacation, at a moment when she was “against men,” that Shirley fell in love. She saw naval officer Charles Black across a room; he didn’t know who she was, but described her as “a very unusual comet flying through my sky.” They began dating immediately.

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Ten months later, Charles and Shirley were married, and moved to D.C. to be closer to Charles’s new job as a commander at the Pentagon. Ever a forward-thinking force, Shirley found herself drawn to Washington’s political community. “You want to know more… to do more,” she said.

Arnald Gabriel

And do more she did. Shirley’s young political hobnobbing had prepared her to get involved. Calling herself a “citizen politician,” she gave her time to the League of Women Voters, fundraised for various organizations, and befriended Eisenhower’s joint chiefs of staff.

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Shirley even ran for Congress, when a seat opened up in the California district where she and Charles eventually moved. She garnered 34,000 votes and came in second out of 12 candidates, catching President Nixon’s attention.

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Nixon appointed her to a delegation for the 1969 U.N. General Assembly, where she spoke about issues like environmental protection, refugee rights, and aiding the elderly. She would later be named the U.S. ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

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Until she passed away in 2014, Shirley Temple Black continued operating in the State Department. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, was named an honorary U.S. Foreign Service officer, and was given the SAG Life Achievement Award.

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Whether it was her early career bringing joy to viewers or her later political work, Shirley had a knack for helping people. “I like a life in public service,” she said. “The pay’s lousy, but other rewards — personal rewards — are great.”

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