Friday, January 26, 2007

A magnificent discovery in Rome
In the sort of announcement that should make ancient history nerd and archaeologists squeal like tiny children, Archaeologists from the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Rome Municipality announced on Tuesday that they believed that they have discovered the cave where, according to legend, a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.
"We were drilling the ground near [Emperor Augustus' palace on the Palatine Hill] to survey the foundations of the building when we discovered the cave," said Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the area.

"We knew from ancient reports that the Lupercale shouldn't be far from the Emperor's palace, but we didn't expect to find it. It was a lucky surprise.

"We didn't enter the cave but took some photos with a probe," Iacopi added.

"They show a richly decorated vault encrusted with mosaics and seashells, too rich to be part of a home. That's why we think it could be the ancient sanctuary, but we can't be sure until we find the entrance to the chamber."

The legend of Romulus and Remus states that they were the twin sons of the god Mars and a mortal priestess, Rhea Silvia, who abandoned them on the banks of the Tiber River. They were rescued by a she-wolf who took the babies back to her den and raised them. Later, the brothers founded a town on the hill. The traditional date of the founding is April 21, 753 BC, which became the starting year of the Roman calendar. Traces of a fortified village that date to near that time have been found on the hill.

The cave, called the Lupercale, was a cult site to the inhabitants of the village of Rome. Founder's cults were fairly common in ancient Mediterranean religions. The Roman cult was celebrated each year on February 15 by an animal sacrifice from the early days of the village until 494 AD, when Pope Gelasius banned the pagan tradition. Finding the cave does not prove anything about the truth or falsity of the legend of Romulus and Remus; its main significance is in understanding the public religion of Rome as it was practiced for over a thousand years.

I, for one, can't wait for them to find the entrance and publish some pictures.

Ironically, the point of the conference on Tuesday, where the discovery was announced, was to discuss the poor state of the monuments on the Palatine Hill. Like many archaeological sites near urban areas, the monuments on the Palatine Hill are decaying quickly. Pollution destroys the carvings and murals on the surfaces of many buildings. Vibrations from traffic threaten to literally shake some buildings apart. Tourists carry off souvenirs. Construction threatens to destroy or make permanently inaccessible other sites. Knowledge is vanishing before our eyes. And, is the case with most science and history, there is never enough money to go around.

This discovery might be a blessing, at least to the antiquities of Rome. A find like this is sure to pique Roman civic pride, and possibly broader Italian nationalist interest, in a way that will get people to open their pocketbooks and shell out a few Euros to preserve the past. At least, that's how I hope it will work out.

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