Underneath the floors of Madonna Tal-Ħniena Church in Qrendi, a village in Malta, archaeologists discovered the remnants of a chapel dating to the late Medieval period. The discovery announced by Malta’s Superintendence of Cultural Heritage came as the team completed the first phase of an archaeological study in partnership with the Restoration Directorate.
Madonna Tal-Ħniena (Our Lady of Mercy) was built in Qrendi in 1650 C.E. After falling into disrepair, it was fully restored later in the 17th century, and a sacristy was added to house sacred vessels and vestments. Despite being deconsecrated when it had fallen into poor condition, locals continued to worship in the intervening years. The church is filled with ex-voto paintings, which function as religious offerings for divine intervention on such matters as cures for illness and shipwreck rescues.
At the main altar, a painting of the Madonna and child shows the pair sitting on the moon surrounded by angels, two of whom are holding a crown above Mary’s head. Another prominent painting near the church’s main entrance known as Awżiljaturi (helpers) features the 14 saints commonly invoked by the Maltese for protection against various diseases and other misfortunes.
The buried medieval chapel, thought to have been built prior to 1500 C.E., was uncovered after the team removed the Baroque church’s floor tiles. There, they found the surviving walls of an older, smaller structure. Beneath its foundations, even older archaeological deposits were found, suggesting the site may have been used prior to the Medieval period.
A little more than a half-mile away, the Neolithic temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra stand along the coastline. Some of the oldest sacred sites on earth, these ancient stone monuments date to the 4th millennium B.C.E. and attest to humanity’s long presence in the area.
Further investigation will focus on accurately dating the finds, and determining whether a third structure—the oldest of the three—may lie beneath the Medieval chapel.