“In 1923,” we read, “pioneer filmmaker Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history for his silent (and early Technicolor) epic, The Ten Commandments. It was called ‘The City of the Pharaoh.'”
Constructing DeMille’s instant city was no half-effort: “Sixteen hundred laborers built hieroglyph-covered walls 110 feet tall, flanked by four statues of Ramses II and 21 sphinxes, 5 tons each. DeMille populated his city with 2,500 actors and extras, housing them in tents on an adjacent dune.”
[Image: A scene from The Ten Commandments, via NPR].
Not one to leave his creation around for others to use in their own cinematic ways, “DeMille ordered that the entire edifice be dismantled… and secretly buried. And there it lay, forgotten, for the next 60 years,” eventually becoming known as the “lost city of Cecil B. DeMille.”
But then, in 1983, “a group of determined film buffs – inspired by a cryptic clue in DeMille’s posthumously published Autobiography – located the remains of the set. (…) They brought in ground-penetrating radar to scan the sands, and hit pay dirt: the dune-entombed remains of DeMille’s dream.”
[Image: The lost city, via NPR].
Peter Brosnan and John Parker – the “film buffs” mentioned above – arrived at the site to find themselves “in a field of plaster statuary… [T]here had been big storms, and more set was uncovered than had been seen in 30 years.” They thus proceeded with the excavation… about which more can be read here.
Meanwhile, something about this story reminds me (very vaguely) of Skara Brae, a 4000-year old Stone Age village uncovered not by archaeologists but by an especially violent seasonal storm on the far west coast of Scotland.
“In the winter of 1850,” Orkneyjar tells us, “a great storm battered Orkney. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but on this occasion, the combination of Orkney’s notorious winds and extremely high tides stripped the grass from a large mound known as Skerrabra. The storm revealed the outline of a series of stone buildings that intrigued the local laird, William Watt of Skaill. So he embarked on an excavation of the site.”
[Image: Skara Brae, via Orkneyjar].
Orkneyjar goes on to explain that, “[b]ecause of the protection offered by the sand that covered the settlement for 4,000 years, the buildings and their contents are incredibly well-preserved. Not only are the walls of the structure still standing and alleyways roofed with their original stone slabs, but the interior fittings of each dwelling give an unparalleled glimpse of life as it was in Neolithic Orkney.”
In any case, combine Skara Brae and DeMille’s lost city – then add a few ten thousand years – and you get future archaeologists uncovering, by accident, with the help and assistance of an unseasonal storm, the outlines of a buried city. Washington D.C., say, or perhaps Springdale, Utah. Thing is, these future archaeologists conclude that the city wasn’t an actual dwelling place, not a real place to live – they discover far too many parking lots, for instance, and can’t believe anyone would willingly live surrounded by those things – instead, they think, the city had been a monumental film set.
Excavations continue – leading to the controversial conclusion that human civilization in North America was really a massive piece of performance art, from sea to shining sea – a cinematic installation upon the plains – and so whatever film had been made there must surely still exist…
Thus begins a whole new, Paul Austerian chapter of future archaeology – in which they hunt for the lost and secret films of a buried North America.