The discovery of an ancient Roman cave has unearthed a debate about its historical purpose and delved into a deeper question for scholars: Can archaeology prove mythology?
The cave was found when a camera was lowered through a hole in Rome's Palatine Hill during restorations of the palace of the Emperor Augustus, who ruled from the late first century B.C. until his death in A.D. 14. The Palatine Hill was a seat of power in ancient Rome; today it is home to the fragile remains of palaces and temples.
The discovery of the vaulted cavern, more than 50 feet underground and covered in mosaics, was announced in November. Some believe it is a shrine of the Lupercale, the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, are said to have been suckled by a wolf —lupa in Latin.
According to Roman mythology, the twin sons of a priestess and Mars, the god of war, were set adrift in the Tiber River. Instead of drowning, the infants washed ashore.
Francesco Rutelli, Italy's Minister of Culture, says the cave is the Lupercale celebrated in Augustus' time, as evidenced by references in 2,000-year-old texts.
Archaeologist Andrea Carandini of Rome's La Sapienza University calls the finding "one of the greatest discoveries ever made" and says the chances are "minimal" that the cave is not the site revered by the Romans as the Lupercale.
Carandini and others point to discoveries such as the cave and earlier findings of ancient structures as evidence that myths about the city's founding reflect history, and say that the founder of Rome may actually have been named Romulus.
Subject to interpretation
But linking artifacts to legends is risky business, say historians and other archaeologists.
"Everyone always wants to think that archaeology has proved the Bible is true, or that there really was a Trojan War, or that King Arthur was a real character," says historian T.P. Wiseman of England's University of Exeter. "Archaeology by its nature can't provide such evidence."
He says that when archaeologists interpret an artifact, their expert perspective is essentially a best guess, because there's no means of confirmation.
Historian Christopher Smith of Scotland's University of St. Andrews notes that even if artifacts clearly reference the Romulus and Remus story, all they will show is that the cavern is a place where first-century Romans celebrated the legend — not that the story is real.
"It is tempting to argue that the finds support historical events," Smith says, "when in fact they merely support ancient beliefs about events."
Wiseman says everything we believe we know about the ancient world must be treated as a hypothesis, one that may be disproved by future finds. The only concrete relationship between an artifact and a myth is "what people create with their own will to believe."
Earlier discoveries linked to Romulus and Remus, who supposedly founded Rome in 753 B.C., have divided experts.
In 1988, Carandini discovered a section of wall in Rome dating from the eighth century B.C., which he linked to a boundary found in the legend: Romulus killed Remus when he mocked such a wall. Other archaeologists and historians have recognized the validity of Carandini's find as an archaeological discovery but don't see it giving credence to mythology.
The Capitoline Wolf, a bronze statue of a wolf suckling a pair of infant boys, has come under fire. Long believed to be a fifth-century B.C. Etruscan statue, it may be much younger than that. Last year, Anna Maria Carruba, who was involved in its restoration, published a book claiming the process showed that the wolf was made outside Italy during the medieval period.
If so, Wiseman says, the statue is no longer proof that fifth-century B.C. inhabitants knew the story of Romulus and Remus, which had added weight to the argument that the legend might have historical roots.
Archaeologist Adriano La Regina, also of La Sapienza, who was in charge of the city's archaeological excavations from 1976 to 2005, is among those who argue that the newly discovered cave is not the Lupercale. Ancient sources, from the writings of Dionysius to Cicero, indicate otherwise, he says.
Historian Mario Torelli of Italy's University of Perugia suggests the chamber is only a grotto of the Palatine palace, included in the historical record since the 16th century.
More to discover
Augustus saw himself as a new founder — Romulus and Remus combined, according to Stanford University scholar Adrienne Mayor. And with written references to an actual Lupercale site during Augustus' time, Mayor believes it's fair game for scholars to try to find it.
Mayor says more study has to be done before drawing conclusions about the underground chamber. Experts have been investigating the cave with endoscopes and laser scanners, fearful that the grotto — already partially caved in — would not survive an archaeological dig.
Still, Mayor is impressed that the ancient story of the nurturing wolf has survived at least 2,000 years and has meaning for people today. Trying to connect with the past, "humans return again and again to archaeology to confirm the reality of myth," she says. "It's a timeless impulse."