When Archaeologists Dug Up A Californian Sand Dune, They Discovered An Astonishing Artifact

Along California’s picturesque coastline, archaeologists meticulously dig away at the sprawling sands. Soon enough, they hit something. And as the team exhumes the lost relic, it becomes clear that their find is not merely a cast-off from the ocean, nor does it fit in with the state’s history. Instead, the 300-pound artifact seems to be from halfway across the world.

The dig took place at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, the longest system of faultless coastal dunes on the planet. Since at least the 1980s archaeologists have been interested in the sandy expanse, having caught wind of a secret bounty hidden beneath its mounds. And now, after many years of planning and digging, their efforts have landed them an astounding prize: a relic seemingly a few thousand miles – and years – from its home.

Certainly, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes have proved bountiful in recent years, with excavators rescuing a slew of small wares from its sandy expanse. But while the diverse array of artifacts recovered from the region is indeed impressive, most would agree that the dunes’ most stunning treasure – which was retrieved in 2017 – blows all of those out of the water. And perhaps even more deserving of awe than the relic itself is the story of where it came from.

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes stretch for the best part of 20 miles, so it’s a wonder that any of its hidden treasures have been unearthed – let alone such a momentous prize. The vast region, with its endless sandy mounds rising and falling, must surely make for tricky navigating. Wind constantly breezes through the area, which molds the dunes and pushes some of them up to 500 feet high. And, at its lower points, the park has yellow shrubbery, freshwater pools and ocean waves crashing into the shoreline.

Despite its harsh landscape, though, the region has been inhabited for many centuries. In the 18th century, Spanish explorers arrived, and Spanish commander Don Gaspar de Portolà and his expedition crew spent a night out on the dunes. Fast-forward two centuries and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes took on a completely different set of inhabitants. Creative types, intellectuals and even naturists flocked to the sandy stretch between the 1920s and ’40s. They claimed that the natural area emanated a creative energy, inspiring them to publish a magazine called The Dune Forum.

Those living amid the glorious, stimulating landscape of the dunes called themselves Dunites. But they weren’t alone in their affinity for the coastal lands. Black gold, you see, was spotted bubbling up from beneath the dunes in 1948, and the oil company Unocal wanted its piece of the pie. Soon after, the Guadalupe Oil Field opened for business.

Unocal’s work, though, did little to preserve the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Instead, its drilling caused over 12 million gallons of petroleum to spill beneath the sand. It took until 1994 for the company to acknowledge the spill and take steps to clean it up. Surprisingly, these restorative efforts are still ongoing; in 2015 it was estimated that the clean-up could take another decade.

Certainly, as time has gone on, people have realized that the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are worth protecting. It was in the 1970s, in fact, that the first modern measures came into place to safeguard the sandy 18-mile stretch. One major change disallowed off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs, from traversing the delicate dunes.

And while the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes may have been adversely affected by human intervention, their natural beauty is certainly resilient. The great landscape was formed by powerful natural forces, after all. The nearby Santa Maria River brought sediment to the Pacific’s edge, combining with the sand that sat there. Ocean winds then whipped these materials into a sea of towering peaks.

It was nearly two millennia ago that this dune-building process started, but the region’s slopes show no sign of flattening soon. Indeed, the Guadalupe-Nipomo’s Mussel Rock Dune nearly reaches a staggering 500 feet high, with its sandy summit the tallest out of all its fellow mounds. And, while Mussel Rock and its neighboring dunes are treasures all on their own, they hide some natural wonders within them too.

For instance, the dunes stand around a body of fresh water called Oso Flaco Lake. The region’s unique topography – with this natural reservoir, the ocean’s edge and the sprawling dunes – creates a special ecosystem along this stretch of California coast. Indeed, in the 75-acre Oso Flaco Lake area alone, more than 200 species of birds make their homes.

And it’s not just winged species flocking to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Along with hundreds of interesting birds, the sandy mounds attract the California red-legged frog, lizards and the coast garter snake. Mammals make a home there, too; visitors could happen upon bobcats, black bears or mountain lions.

Alongside the countless animals that inhabit the vast coastal region, roughly 20 endangered plant species thrive in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. These particular strains have to be durable enough to withstand burial beneath the sand as well as saltwater spray, windy weather and isolation. Considering these conditions, then, it’s surprising just how many plants and animals flourish there.

And it’s not just flora and fauna you might be surprised to find within the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Since the early 1980s, at least, experts have gone to great lengths to excavate the dunes. Their curious mission, you see, has been to dig up Egyptian relics along the California coastline – despite being over 6,000 miles away from Egypt.

But those digging in the region aren’t simply relying on pot luck. In fact, archaeologists have used ground mapping to give themselves a good idea of what’s beneath the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes – and where to find it. Unfortunately, though, they can’t just excavate the objects that appear on their screens. Their approach must take into account both what they’re digging up and the environment in which it’s buried.

Specifically, many of the artifacts ensconced beneath the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes were crafted from plaster. After decades spent under the sand, they lost their solidity and took on the consistency of a squidgy blue cheese. As such, archaeologists from Applied EarthWorks, Inc., who were responsible for the excavations on the dunes, opted to first harden the relics in place before retrieving them from the sands.

This long, arduous process proved problematic for those interested in completing the Guadalupe-Nipomo project. Crucially, the Dunes Center had to work hard to gather funding for any archaeological digs in the region. Sometimes, though, nature proved a valuable ally, playing right into their hands.

Sand dunes, you see, don’t stay in one place; winds shift them and reshape them every day. Indeed, the Guadalupe-Nipomo mounds tend to move a number of feet with every passing year. These gradual movements, slowly but surely, can expose bits of the very relics that archaeologists have seen on their radars. But these fragments are just a small sample of the real treasures hiding below.

In 2017 archaeologists proved that when they got the chance to dig into the dunes. And even with radar imaging and the previous artifacts uncovered, those at the job site could barely believe what they found. Hidden beneath the sand in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes was a 300-pound sphinx head. No kidding.

And the curious relic was in exceptional condition. Indeed, executive director of the Dunes Center, Doug Jenzen, couldn’t believe the fine state of the vast sphinx’s head. He said in a statement, “The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs. The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact.” The relic also flaunted “extremely intense colors.”

Of course, the sphinx was far from Ancient Egypt, where one might expect to dig up such a culturally specific remnant of the past. Still, archaeologists knew that they would find something with an Egyptian twist hiding beneath the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. And that’s because of one final piece of the land’s history: it once served as a movie set for a famous Prohibition-era film.

In the 1920s, you see, director Cecil B. DeMille chose the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes as the backdrop for his blockbuster silent film The Ten Commandments. The biblically inspired picture included modern-day scenes of brothers interpreting the holy text in different ways as well as segments set in Ancient Egypt.

And for those scenes of the old world, the towering Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes masqueraded – quite convincingly, it must be said – as the Egyptian deserts. Of course, DeMille needed more than just sand to bring these biblical lands to life. A massive set – which included four massive Pharaoh statues and a whopping 21 sphinxes – was built near the Pacific coast.

It took well over 1,500 workers to build the set for The Ten Commandments, but their hard work wouldn’t be saved once shooting ended. Huge portions of the set indeed ended up buried in the sand, sparking much rumor and speculation as to how – and why – they were so callously discarded. Some even say that the crew used dynamite to break it all down before nature encased it beneath the shifting dunes.

Another theory posits that DeMille himself was responsible for the fate of the set. In the 1920s, you see, lower-budget filmmakers would stake out abandoned high-budget props to make their movies more high-quality. Some contend that the visionary director didn’t want anyone pilfering his epic plaster scenery, so he had it hidden in the sand.

Of course, it could have been nature that pushed the sphinxes, pharaohs and countless other props beneath the towering mounds. As mentioned earlier, strong, unforgiving winds tear across the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, carrying with them corrosive saltwater. The deserted set, then, may have simply crumbled in this bitter environment and become submerged under the shifting hills.

Whether it was man or nature that buried the magnificent set, it would remain hidden from view for six decades after its use. It was then that investigator Peter Brosnan, a filmmaker himself and a big fan of DeMille’s work, set out to find it. The famed director of The Ten Commandments, you see, left clues in his autobiography about where precisely he filmed the biblical epic.

Brosnan eventually tracked down the location and found himself in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. There were a few problems, though; he didn’t have the money necessary to take on such a huge excavation. And, as previously mentioned, the softened remains of the movie’s set would require hardening before they could emerge from the ground.

To add a further complication to the project, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes have many protections that preserve them after the disastrous oil drilling and ATV joy-riding of the past. It took Brosnan several decades to get Santa Barbara County’s permission to dig into the sand in search of these age-old relics of Hollywood cinema.

So, even with Brosnan pinpointing the location of The Ten Commandments’ set, it took years for the digs to begin. In the 1990s, the first round of excavations uncovered small remnants from the movie that was once filmed there. For instance, archaeologists found Prohibition-era liquor bottles, smoking paraphernalia and, somehow, a slice of burnt toast preserved under the sand.

In 2012 the team made their first sphinx prop-related discovery. At that time, they found another one of the figures’ heads, but it crumbled as they tried to remove it from the ground. And when they tried to recover the rest of the statue’s body, they found that, sadly, it too had deteriorated after nearly a century in the sand.

And that’s precisely why the 2017 discovery of such a well-preserved sphinx proved so exciting for the archaeologists at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. The figure emerged from the ground sporting its original terracotta color. And, quite remarkably, it measured in at the best part of ten feet tall.

With the 2017 find, excavators certainly had a stroke of good luck. Not only had they found the massive sphinx in the first place, but it had ended up buried completely by sand, preserving it against the elements and allowing water to drain through. Any contact with dirt, for example, and the entire plaster-based statue would have moistened and crumbled like the others.

Still, the excavation team didn’t take any chances in removing the second sphinx that they found; they coated its insides with a foam spray, which strengthened the plaster statue. But even without the extra layer of protection, the team found the sphinx to be in good condition with many of its details still visible.

Specifically, Jenzen noted the colorful paints that bedecked the orange-hued statue. This feature was interesting, considering that The Ten Commandments was recorded in black and white. These strokes of bright color served a purpose, though: they made the details stand out, even when projected in shades of gray.

And although the sphinx retrieved from beneath the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes may not be an actual relic of ancient Egypt, it still has an important place in history. Jenzen explained to Quartz, “Movie sets just don’t exist anymore from that Golden Age of Hollywood. This represents an opportunity to save a piece of American history before it’s destroyed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Jenzen’s belief in the significance of the relic, he and the rest of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes team had big plans for it once it was safely above ground. After restoring the plaster statue to its former glory, they displayed it at the Dunes Center museum, which visitors can find in downtown Guadalupe, California.

Even with such a major relic uncovered, the excavation team showed no signs of slowing down. They hoped to continue their digs into the dunes, just so long as they could get funding to do so. Jenzen told LiveScience that it cost over a whopping $130,000 per permit when they wanted to helm an excavation into the dunes.

To pass the time until more artifacts can be retrieved, film buffs can see some of Brosnan’s work in uncovering the film set in his 2016 documentary called The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille. The flick features those who lived near the dunes when the legendary director filmed The Ten Commandments – just before he left such incredible pieces of Hollywood history behind.

Of course, the 2019 excavation of DeMille's vast sphinx isn't the only startling discovery to have been made in California's glorious sands. Just two years earlier, in fact, another remarkable find was made along The Golden State's Pacific shoreline. And just as the stunning prop from The Ten Commandments had been masquerading as an Egyptian relic, the specimen recovered in 2017 wasn't at all as it first seemed either.

The staff at California's Coal Oil Point Reserve couldn’t miss the 600-pound creature that washed up from the Pacific Ocean. But while, at first, the team thought that they knew the species of the giant critter, a closer look led them to realize that they'd gotten things all wrong. And, unsettlingly, the experts had no idea what the monstrous beast actually was.

Considering how large the animal on the beach appeared to be, the Coal Point experts quickly determined that they’d found an ocean sunfish. And the specs seemed right, at first. For starters, the ocean sunfish is one of the weightiest species of bony fish on Earth, with some examples able to reach in excess of a whopping 2,200 pounds.

The ocean sunfish can be so large, in fact, that its height may even match its length. These astonishing beasts therefore stand in stark contrast to the sleek, slim fish we tend to imagine darting through rivers and oceans. And while the size and thickness of adult sunfish’s skin keeps them safe from many oceanic predators, they’re nevertheless at risk of being eaten by sharks, orcas and sea lions.

Then there are those ocean sunfish that wash up on the shores of beaches – often perplexing the people who eventually find their massive bodies. The Coal Point Oil Reserve team thought that they’d found one such specimen, too, in 2019. Upon further inspection, though, the specialists realized that they’d actually come across something else – something just as enormous.

It’s not particularly surprising, however, that there would be such a creature on the Coal Point Oil Reserve in Southern California. After all, the area – which is protected by the University of California to aid in educational pursuits – is home to a slew of unusual fauna. The land itself is important, too, as it’s one of the final illustrations of a coastal-strand environment.

Untouched dunes pile up along the coastline of the Coal Oil Point Reserve, and these play host to some noteworthy forms of plant life. The ecosystems that have developed here are also delicately balanced, although they’re certainly sufficient for the dune beetle and the western snowy plover – both of which can be seen near these sandy mounds.

The Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve additionally encompasses the Devereux Slough, which presents as a tidal lagoon during the colder parts of the year. In the summertime, though, much of the moisture evaporates and the area instead becomes defined by salt flats and saline ponds. And such changes create one-of-a-kind habitats for the creatures that end up here. This is also the case with the reserve’s grasslands and its stretches covered in coastal scrub – a community of plants native to California.

In total, the Coal Oil Point Reserve is known to host more than 1,000 different species of animals and plants. Yet experts believe that they’ve yet to reveal every single creature that dwells within the expanse of protected land. And it’s fortunate that the area is safeguarded, too, as many of the examples of flora and fauna here face habitat disintegration elsewhere.

Plus, the Coal Oil Point Reserve borders the Pacific Ocean, which means that there are plenty more noteworthy animals swimming in the nearby depths. Indeed, an intern who worked on the reserve happened upon one of those very critters in February 2019. From far away, though, the creature would’ve looked like a massive, gray blob.

And in a UC Santa Barbara press release, conservation specialist Jessica Nielsen was quoted as saying that the intern’s discovery had initially shocked her. Unlike most other animals that appear on sandy coastlines, you see, the creature had strange features. Of the find, Nielsen added, “This is certainly the most remarkable organism I have seen wash up on the beach in my four years at the reserve.”

In fact, it appears that evolutionary biologist Thomas Turner felt much the same way when he saw the gigantic creature in the sand. First, he caught a glimpse of the beast in images that Nielsen had uploaded to the Coal Oil Point Reserve’s Facebook account. Then he raced to the shoreline with his wife and child so that he could see the bizarre discovery for himself.

Speaking to CNN in February 2019, Turner said, “It’s the most unusual fish you’ve ever seen. It has no tail. All of its teeth are fused, so it doesn’t have any teeth. It’s just got this big round opening for a mouth.” On top of that, the creature was enormous. In fact, 6-foot-tall Turner stood with his arms outstretched to show just how large it was.

The fish was nearly 7 feet long, as it happens, and weighed more than 600 pounds. Owing to all that they could determine, then, the Coal Oil Point Reserve team classified the creature as an ocean sunfish – otherwise known as a common mola. Then the staff posted photos of the animal to a website called iNaturalist to allow other experts to weigh in. And, at first, a number of the commenters also suspected that the California-based team had found an ocean sunfish.

Luckily, though, someone looped Ralph Foster into the conversation. And from there, the South Australian Museum’s fish expert took a good, hard look at the photos of the supposed ocean sunfish. But not all was as it seemed. Yes, as Foster examined the creature, he suspected that it wasn’t actually among the species identified at all.

At least the skeptical Turner knew who he could turn to in search of answers. Ultimately, then, he fired off an email containing some images of the beached fish to a woman named Marianne Nyegaard. And as a marine scientist, Nyegaard was the perfect person to consult on such matters.

But the images initially did little to move Nyegaard. She recalled to CNN, “The pictures weren’t very clear. I was reluctant to settle on an identification because it was so far out of range.” So, she and Foster reached out to the Coal Oil Point Reserve team. If they could send over better photos, then the duo could be in a better position to draw conclusions.

Fortunately, Nielsen and Turner heeded Nyegaard and Foster’s call, as the California-based pair returned to the shoreline to snap more photos of the perplexing creature. By then, though, a couple of days had passed since the intern had spotted the blob on the sand. And in that time, the tides had seemingly washed it away.

Still, Nielsen and Turner held out hope that they could track down the supposed ocean sunfish once more. They therefore separated out for a search, starting a couple of miles apart and then walking towards each other. And, thankfully, the scientists’ plan worked, as they finally rediscovered the fish’s body not far from its original resting place.

Turner and Nielsen could examine the creature once more, then, and send detailed photos to Nyegaard and Foster. Yet when the Coal Oil Point duo took a closer look at the fish, they noticed a few features that proved its original classification had been wrong.

For example, where normal fish have tails, the ocean sunfish has what’s known as a clavus – a rounded protrusion that’s sometimes as wide as the entire body. As such, this feature acts more like a rudder than a powerful back fin. But while the beast on the California beach had a clavus, its shape didn’t match that seen on other ocean sunfish.

Snapping pictures of the unique fish delighted Nielsen, though, and she explained as much to UC Santa Barbara news site The Current. In February 2019, the conservation specialist said, “It really was exciting to collect the photos and samples, knowing that it could potentially be such an extraordinary sighting.”

And as it turned out, Nielsen hadn’t let her excitement build up in vain. You see, as soon as Nyegaard saw the clearer pictures, she knew that the California-based scientists had found something completely spectacular on their beach. Indeed, she later recounted to CNN, “I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell out of my chair.”

Specifically, Nyegaard recognized that the sunfish was not of the common variety; rather, it was a hoodwinker sunfish. And she was ultimately the right person to note the subtle differences between the two. After all, in 2017 the marine scientist had discovered and named the hoodwinker species after years of trying to find it.

Plus, while scientists have long known about the existence of sunfish, it’s taken centuries for them to conclude that quite so many different varieties of the creature exist. The ocean sunfish – now known as the most prevalent of all the sunfish species – was discovered first in 1758.

Later, though, evidence started to emerge of a mysterious type of sunfish living around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Chile – in other words, places that were all in the Southern hemisphere. In addition, a record from the turn of the 19th century claimed that one of the massive creatures had been spotted in Dutch waters. Nyegaard had plenty of places in which to look, then, when she decided to try and find this enigmatic animal.

But while Nyegaard researched the mystery fish, she realized that a lot of sightings had been misclassified. Sometimes, for instance, a common variety of the fish was deemed to be a rarer breed or vice versa. And that’s precisely how the hoodwinker had swum under the radar for so long: no one had taken the time to pinpoint its subtle diversity.

Nyegaard explained to CNN, “[The hoodwinker] had gone unnoticed because no one really realized it looked different. There’s a long history of confusion about the species in the sunfish family. This fish had managed to stay out of sight and out of everybody’s attention. It had been taken for Mola mola [the ocean sunfish], so it was hoodwinking us all.”

So, when the California-based team found a hoodwinker on their shores, it floored Nyegaard. Initially, you see, she had doubted claims that the species had somehow turned up in the U.S. Yet the pictures confirmed that yet another hoodwinker had actually surfaced, leaving Nyegaard in what she described to The Guardian as “a mix of disbelief and excitement.”

Much of that had to do with the hoodwinker’s location, as California is a fair distance from the fish’s usual haunts in the Southern Hemisphere. In March 2019 Nyegaard added to The Guardian, “That’s as far north as I have seen [the hoodwinker] that corresponds to a cold water current. For this fish to suddenly rock up in California is really exciting.”

So, how exactly did this specific hoodwinker end up over 4,000 miles away from its typical habitat? Well, Nyegaard revealed to CNN that this type of exploratory behavior wasn’t completely uncharacteristic for the hoodwinker. As she put it in her own words, “It’s not uncommon for sunfish to wander really far.”

And Nyegaard shared another pair of hypotheses with The Guardian, explaining, “It could just be a lost sunfish, or it could be [that] we don’t understand the distribution yet. Then, of course, there is the whole issue around climate change. We can’t conclude anything from just one specimen, but, of course, it is the question.”

Luckily, there is something that will potentially answer Nyegaard’s lingering questions: DNA. After the beached fish’s discovery, scientists from UC Santa Barbara gathered around to take samples of its genetic information. And if a match is established between the Californian beast and a New Zealand hoodwinker, then this would prove that the Coal Oil Point Reserve example had somehow branched off from its southern hemisphere counterparts.

Even if this turns out to have been the case, though, there would still be other questions to answer. Nyegaard explained further to CNN, saying, “We know [the hoodwinker] has the temperate distribution around here and off the coast of Chile. But then how did it cross the equator and turn up by you guys? It’s intriguing what made this fish cross the equator.”

In the meantime, everyone involved with the discovery of the California hoodwinker was seemingly pleased to be a part of such a momentous find. Nielsen told The Current, “Mola tecta [the hoodwinker] was just recently discovered, so there is still so much to learn about this species. I’m so glad that we could help these researchers make the final definitive ID.”

For fish scientist Foster, on the other hand, euphoria had kicked in long before the positive identification of the hoodwinker. As he explained to CNN, “To discover that it may be the first record in all of the Americas and only the second Northern Hemisphere record for the species... then I got very excited.”

Regardless, it will take time to determine if the California hoodwinker has ties to those in the Southern Hemisphere. And, as it happens, a very interesting individual will carry out the DNA tests. Geneticist Dr. Mette Nyegaard of Denmark’s Aarhus University will lead the charge, and her surname may have given away the fact that she’s Nyegaard’s sibling.

For now, scientists can just appreciate the fact that people on the internet helped them to identify an incredibly rare species. And the Coal Oil Point Reserve’s director Cris Sandoval certainly gave others credit when talking to The Current. He said, “Without attentive eyes, camera phones and social media, the Australian ichthyologists would have never learned that this fish had just been seen for the first time in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Sandoval also implied that this method of sharing and spreading scientific theory would be a thing of the future. Right now, of course, it’s still a relatively new concept. He explained, “This type of crowd-sourced science is helping biologists map species in ways we could not have imagined just a few years ago.”

Nyegaard and Turner celebrated the web for its aid in their triumph, too. Nyegaard, for instance, lauded iNaturalist for its bright and helpful community. She told CNN, “We are living in a changing world, and it’s important for scientists to get input from everybody in what they see. We can’t be out in the field every day all over the world.”

And then there was Turner, who was quick to point out that even he would’ve missed the hoodwinker without the assistance of the internet. He said, “I’m a professor. I’m a biologist. But I didn’t actually know what was special about this fish. I just posted a picture, and that connected me with the world’s expert and the discoverer of the species.” Now, he and the other specialists will have to wait and see what the tests say about the rare fish that brought all of them together.