Little doubt remains that the site found in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, near Pamukkale in Turkey, is Pluto's Gate, or the "gate to Hell" -- a cave celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology and tradition.
Archaeologists excavating the area in front of the opening, which historic sources described as filled with lethal mephitic vapors, found two marble statues which once guarded the deadly cave.
One statue depicts a snake rolled onto itself, a clear symbol of the underworld. The other shows Kerberos, or Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Hell in Greek mythology.
The 4-foot-tall marble statue resembles the Kangal, the Anatolian shepherd dog.
Pluto's Gate was discovered in March by a team led by Francesco D'Andria, professor of classic archaeology at the University of Salento. The archaeologists unearthed Ionic semi columns and, on top of them, an inscription with a dedication to the deities of the underworld -- Pluto and Kore.
D'Andria's team also found the remains of a temple, a pool and a series of steps placed above the cave. From these steps, people watched the sacred rites.
During the rites, priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto.The ceremony included leading the animals into the cave, and dragging them out dead.
Small birds were given to pilgrims to test the deadly effects of the cave. Even today birds and insects are victims of the carbon dioxide fumes coming from the opening.
The new excavation also revealed the source of the thermal springs, which produce the famous white travertine terraces. Pamukkale' s famous springs originate right from this cave.
Although access to Pluto's Gate might have been blocked in the 5th century, when the Roman empire became progressively christianized, pilgrims continued to venerate the area by leaving offerings to the deities.
The archaeologists unearthed dozens of lamps in front of the cave opening.
Among the most precious votive offerings, the archaeologists found a marble head representing the goddess Aphrodite.