Work on Rome's Palatine Hill has turned up a trove of discoveries, including what might be the underground grotto where ancient Romans believed a wolf nursed the city's legendary founders Romulus and Remus.
Archaeologists gathered Tuesday at a conference to save crumbling monuments on the Palatine. The Palatine's once-luxurious imperial homes have been poorly maintained and were at one time in danger of collapse — a situation that forced the closure of much of the hill to the public during a restoration project.
While funds are still scarce, authorities plan to reopen some key areas of the honeycombed hill to tourists by the end of the year, including frescoed halls in the palaces of the emperor Augustus and of his wife, Livia.
After being closed for decades, parts of the palaces will be opened for guided tours while restoration continues, officials said.
Mysterious grotto found
It was during the restoration of the palace of Rome's first emperor that workers taking core samples from the hill found what could be a long-lost place of worship, believed by ancient Romans to be the cave where a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the abandoned twin sons of the god of war Mars.
Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the Palatine and the nearby Roman Forum, said experts used a probe to peer into the 52-foot-deep (15-meter-deep) cavity and found a vaulted space decorated with frescoes, niches and seashells. It is too early to say for sure whether the worship place known as "lupercale" — from "lupa," Latin for wolf — has been found, but Roman texts say that it was close to Augustus' palace and that the emperor had restored it, Iacopi said.
"It was a very important symbolic place and we believe that it was well-preserved," said Giovanna Tedone, an architect leading the work at the palace. Archaeologists are now looking for the grotto's entrance, she said.
Ancient statues ... and a sewer
Other finds to have emerged recently from the Palatine's largely unexplored palaces and temples include an ancient Roman sewer, insignia believed to have belonged to the emperor Maxentius, terra-cotta statues and an alabaster tiger striped with gray marble.
Officials said the resurfaced treasures highlight the importance of a hill so favored by the rich and powerful that its name is at the origin of the words "palace" in English, "palais" in French and "palazzo" in Italian.
Today rainwater seeps through stones, roots bore through bricks and retaining walls crack under layer after layer of construction, from the eighth-century B.C. remains of Rome's first fledgling huts to a medieval fortress and Renaissance villas.
Only a quarter of the Palatine's nearly 500 buildings are above the ground, and just 40 percent of the hill's 67 acres can be visited.
Recycling the sewage system?
The latest closure came in November 2005, when a 16th-century wall collapsed one night in a well-visited area near the emperor Tiberius' palace. No one was hurt, but the collapse prompted authorities to study the stability of the hill and its monuments.
Experts said Tuesday they are considering restoring the ancient Roman sewage system to help drain rainwater.
Each year, 4 million people buy a ticket granting access to the Palatine and the nearby Colosseum, but 90 percent of them just go to the ancient arena, said Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli. The minister said that $9 million will be available in 2007 for more restoration on collapse-prone areas such as Tiberius' palace.