ROME — Italian archaeologists believe they have found the cave where, according to legend, a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.
An underground cavity decorated with seashells, colored marble mosaics and pumice stones was discovered near the ruins of the palace of Emperor Augustus on the Palatine hill.
Experts are "reasonably certain," they said, that it is the long-lost Lupercale (from the Latin word for wolf), the place of worship sacred to ancient Romans. "This could reasonably be the place bearing witness to the myth of Rome, one of the most well-known in the world, the legendary cave where the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus," Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said at a news conference Tuesday.
The cave was found 52 feet underground, in a previously unexplored area, during restoration work on the palace of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
Archaeologists investigating Renaissance descriptions of the sanctuary used a camera probe whose images suggest the vault, which has a white eagle at the center, is well-preserved.
"You can imagine our amazement. We almost screamed," said Giorgio Croci, head of the archaeological team working on the restoration of the Palatine, which overlooks the Forum.
According to the myth, Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the god Mars, were abandoned in a cradle by the banks of the river Tiber where a wolf found them and fed them with her milk. The brothers are said to have founded Rome at the site on April 21, 753 BC, and ended up fighting over who should be in charge. Romulus killed Remus and became Rome's first king.
Archaeologists said the cave's location reinforced their belief that it was the Lupercale.
"It is clear that Augustus . . . wanted his residence to be built in a place which was sacred for the city of Rome," Croci said. The emperor restored the sanctuary and probably connected it to his own palace, he said.
Finding out more about the cave without damaging it or the foundations of the surrounding ruins will not be easy.
More than two-thirds of the cavity, which is about 26 feet high and 23 feet wide, is filled with debris and earth after part of it collapsed. It is not clear where the entrance is. "We have to investigate with extreme caution. . . . This is a precious thing which is certainly more than 2,000 years old," Croci said.
Andrea Carandini, an archaeologist specializing in ancient Rome, called it "one of the most significant discoveries ever."
Closed to the public for decades due to the risk of collapse, Augustus' palace will reopen in February.