Archaeologists discovered the remnants of a chapel dating to the late medieval period underneath a 17th-century church in Qrendi, a village in Malta, according to the country's Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.
The Maltese church, Madonna Tal-Hniena, or Our Lady of Mercy, was constructed in 1650 after falling into disrepair, and it was later restored.
Buried underneath the church is the medieval chapel, which experts said might have been constructed prior to 1500. Archaeologists found the surviving walls of a smaller and older structure.
"The removal of the existing floor tiles and the underlying preparation layers led to the uncovering of walls defining an older structure, which had survived within the enclosed space of the new baroque church," Malta’s Superintendence of Cultural Heritage posted in a statement on May 21.
Underneath the foundation of the medieval structure, researchers found even older archaeological deposits, suggesting that the site might have been used even prior to the late medieval period.
Despite the Maltese church falling into disrepair, locals continued to worship at the site in intervening years. Within the church are ex-voto paintings, which function as a type of religious offering for divine intervention on subjects such as shipwreck rescues and cures for disease, according to ARTnews.
One prominent painting near the main entrance of the Maltese church is known as Awżiljaturi, which means "helpers" and features the 14 saints commonly invoked by the Maltese for protection against various illnesses and other unfortunate circumstances.
Just over a half-mile away from the church are the Neolithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, which are some of the oldest sacred sites on the planet. The ancient stone monuments date to the 4th millennium B.C. and stand as testimony for a longtime human presence in the area.
Researchers will commence the post-excavation phase of the investigation in the coming months, which will include "the study of the evidence, which will aid in understanding the dating of the older chapel and the earlier use of the site before the chapel was built," Malta’s Superintendence of Cultural Heritage said.