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Lost Cities, Movie Sets, and Nature’s Periodic Cruelty

July 25, 2013

I have to admit that I was rather excited when I saw the headline “Star Wars home of Anakin Skywalker threatened by dune” in my BBC RSS feed (and not only because, like many Star Wars fans, I’d be happy to forget about Mos Espa along with the rest of The Phantom Menace). The first thing I thought of when I read the headline wasn’t the movie, actually, but rather a lecture I saw Michael Moseley give at the Cotsen Institute a few years ago. The talk was mostly about periodic natural disasters in Peru, including sand incursions, and I found it quite fascinating. (If you’re interested, he’s published on it a number of times, including here, which is conveniently linkable and, unlike many Google Books entries, seems to show the whole chapter.)

This story seems like a neat illustration of that, on a non-catastrophic scale. A movie set is built in the path of a barchan dune, becomes a tourist destination for fans, and less than a decade and a half later people realize that perhaps “in the path of a barchan dune” is not the best place to build something. The slideshow at the top of the BBC piece is nice, although I wondered if Google Earth had more historical imagery. It turns out you can just fly to “Mos Espa” in Google Earth (which really shouldn’t have surprised me), but the only image the BBC didn’t include is one from 2004. It’s pretty cool to be able to go through the 2004, 2008, and 2009 images, though, and see a single vehicle track up the slip face of the dune turn into tracks covering most of the dune until finally, in 2009, the tracks all disappear, covered by sand. It really gives you some perspective on how quickly these dunes can move.

The BBC story is actually a brief summary of an article in press by Lorenz et al. (2013), published in the journal Geomorphology. I have to give the authors props, since it’s not every day I get geomorphology stories in my BBC feed. The paper itself, as you might expect for something published in Geomorphology, is primarily concerned with using satellite remote sensing to study the movement of the dunes. There are some interesting observations geared more toward “heritage” and tourism, though. For example, another nearby set building from The Phantom Menace has already been covered by a dune and emerged (seriously, they move really quickly). They note, though, that this caused some fairly significant damage, primarily because the buildings weren’t really designed to last a long time or, you know, be covered by a sand dune. This is likely the fate of Mos Espa, too, and the authors suggest that given its potential as a tourism site, something might be done to protect it, like either diverting the dune or just moving the site. This leads them to this great connection:

There would be some irony in such measures being adopted to protect a science fiction film set: it was exposure to eolian transport concerns and countermeasures that inspired author Frank Herbert to write a science fiction novel set on a desert world (‘Dune’) that itself became an epic film. (Lorenz et al. 2013:8)

(Incidentally, beyond its insights on desert cultural ecology, Dune also contains some interesting observations about the uses to which history and archaeology are put, and the processes of remembering and forgetting involved in this. These do get rather heavy-handed by the fourth or fifth installment, though.)

This reminded me of something I actually hadn’t thought about in a while: a short literature review I did during my first year of grad school as the initial stage of a cool remote sensing project. That project, for a variety of reasons, never happened, but it did expose me to a neat bit of Hollywood archaeology. The site we were interested in was the so-called “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille”, or the remains of the set built for The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent film, not the more familiar 1956 Charlton Heston version). The movie was filmed at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara and, after filming, the sets were taken apart and buried beneath the dunes. This was, evidently, a compromise between hauling them away, which was too expensive, and leaving them intact, which would have allowed someone else to come along and use them. Either way, there they were, more or less forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 1983. Comparing the “Lost City of DeMille” to Mos Espa is interesting, because the underlying problem is basically the same (movie sets just aren’t built to last very long), but the environmental issues are different. In the case of the Ten Commandments set, the problem is that the sand is blowing away, leaving the site exposed to damage (more damage than was already caused by taking it apart and burying it under some sand dunes, anyway).

I remembered an archaeological project being in the works at the time I was looking into this (it’s mentioned on this site, which doesn’t appear to have been updated in a while), and wondered if anything had come of that. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look good. I suppose something might have happened after the Dunes Center last updated their web site, but I can’t find anything. It sounded like a really cool project, though: digging up the remains of what a legendary filmmaker and his crew in 1923 thought late 2nd millennium BC Egypt would have looked like.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLorenz, Ralph D., Nabil Gasmi, Jani Radebaugh, Jason W. Barnes, & Gian G. Ori (2013). Dunes on planet Tatooine: Observation of barchan migration at the Star Wars film set in Tunisia Geomorphology DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.06.026

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