July 29, 2011 - A 2,000-year-old mosaic has emerged beneath the Trajan baths on the southern slopes of Oppian Hill in Rome.
The fresco was buried in the tunnel built to support the second-century A.D. bath complex in an underground passageway once used by Napoleon's troops to store explosives. It has been hailed as an "exceptional archaeological discovery" by Umberto Broccoli, superintendent for the city's cultural heritage.
The wall mosaic , which extends for more than 32 feet, dates to the second half of the first century A.D. It features a naked male character with a mantle on his shoulder, holding a harp.
Beautifully portrayed, with the chest and abdominal muscles finely carved, the figure has been identified as Apollo, the Greek god of music, poetry, prophecy, light, and healing. Apollo is also known as "Leader of the Muses."
The mosaic also features a female character, most likely a muse, who stands in the composition with two other male figures, possibly philosophers.
Several architectural features, such as capitals and columns decorated with garland plants, emerge from the background on which the characters stand.
"Since 1998, we have known about the existence of a large mosaic, but we did not excavate because of a lack of funding. The complex was in need of more urgent intervention," said Rita Volpe, one of the archaeologists in charge of the project.
In 1998 archaeologists found another fine mosaic on the exposed wall, showing a philosopher and a muse.
"It decorated a room which also featured a nymphaeum, or fountain court," said the archaeologists.
The entire area was first discovered in 1998, when archaeologists found a unique fresco, now called the "Painted City."
An ambitious cityscape, the fresco provides an unparalleled depiction of an ancient metropolitan center. It shows an aerial view of a fortification with monumental towers -- some with conical tops of a type one would not expect in Roman times -- running alongside an azure river.
Beyond the wall featuring the painted city, the archaeologists unearthed another mosaic in 2004, showing grape harvesting scenes.
The archaeologists believe that the entire area was a Musaeum, a place which in antiquity was dedicated to the goddesses who inspire the creation of the arts. Here, by the fountain court, wealthy Romans gathered to discuss art, culture and music.
"It should have been a beautiful, lavish villa. Unfortunately it was buried and forgotten to make room for the bath complex," Broccoli said.
The so-called Tunnel of Wonders has so far revealed a unique fresco and several stunning mosaics. Here is their location within the underground passageway:
A. The Painted City fresco, discovered in February 1998. B. Muse and Philosopher wall mosaic, discovered in May 1998 C. Grape harvesting wall mosaic, discovered in November 2004 D. Frescoed ceiling, discovered in December 2004 E. Apollo, Muse and Philosophers -- wall mosaic discovered in June-July 2011
Archaeologist Giovanni Caruso estimates another 32 feet of the decorated wall remains to be excavated.