Archaeologists have dug up a wall in the heart of the Roman Forum that could help them discover the secrets of the founding of Rome. The city could be older than it thinks it is.

The archaeologists say the discovery also could find some truth in the legend of Romulus and Remus.According to the legend, Romulus established Rome by building a defensive wall around the Palatine Hill, the site where he and his twin brother, Remus, were suckled in their infancy by a she-wolf and reared by a shepherd. Romulus then founded Rome in 753 B.C., as the legend goes.

While the archaeologists don't believe they'll find any proof of Romulus, Remus, the she-wolf and the shepherd, they do think they might find some truth in the legend about the way Rome was founded and when.

Andrea Carandini, a University of Pisa professor who is leading the dig, said archaeologists in May uncovered a stone wall on a slope of the hill just at the spot described by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus as the site of the wall that first defined and protected Rome.

Experts have dated the find to the seventh century B.C., but Carandini said in an interview he suspects underneath it is an earlier version of a defensive wall that could have been built a century earlier.

Archaeologists say reaching the wall could be the first tangible piece of evidence to back up the story of Rome's legendary founding in 753 B.C.

But secrets of the earliest days of Roman civilization may stay locked in the ground if the government fund that has financed the dig for the last three years is not replenished. Carandini says the team needs the equivalent of about $400,000 to continue.

For now Carandini keeps digging.

"We will never discover the wall of Romulus because Romulus is a legend, of course," he said. "But I think the nucleus of the legend is right, and in a way, we already proved this because nobody believed that there really was a fortification of the Palatine Hill."

The base of the hill eventually developed into the Forum, ancient Rome's market and meeting place, now a major tourist attraction.

Experts who have observed the excavations say the discoveries, if fully documented, will provide significant insight into the little-known period between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C.

"It is interesting that the physical objects that (Carandini) is discovering not only seem to be dated very early in the history of the city but are related to the historical texts that talk about the foundation of the city," said Richard Brilliant, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University in New York, who visited the site in May.

"Whether or not conclusions can be drawn about the wall in the development of the city is something much more research is needed to demonstrate."

Alessandro Guidi, an official with the regional archaeology office, said the find indicates that Rome may have evolved much earlier than was once believed from a primitive village inhabited mainly by shepherds into a more advanced society.

"This could be very important because it may be proof that before the Etruscans conquered Rome, Rome already was a very big center," Guidi said.

The defensive wall, discovered about 10 feet below a grassy surface, probably surrounded a "pomoerium," or holy place, in the city that had been founded with the gods' blessings, Carandini said.

Above the excavated wall, archaeologist found remnants of houses they believe date back to the end of the 6th century B.C. and belonged to aristocrats of Etruscan origins.

The houses probably were built after the defensive wall was expanded to surround the seven hills of Rome, Carandini said.

But it is what lies below the wall that may give real insight into the founding of one of the world's most ancient civilizations.

"We go with clues like Sherlock Holmes," Carandini said. "It is the only way we have of checking the history of Rome, which at this point is a legend. But I think a legend is another way of writing history."