An oven believed to date back to the early 1700s has been unearthed during restoration works on the Auberge d’Aragon in Valletta.
The oven was found in a subterranean area of the 450-year-old Knights’ building flanked by two stone stoves.
The conclusion that the oven dates to the early 18th century stems from the fact that it was built around structures that were erected to repair the auberge after the 1693 earthquake, which hit the south of Italy, Sicily and Malta.
Generating 7.4 on the magnitude scale, the earthquake was the most powerful ever recorded in Italian history, causing the deaths of 60,000 people and destroying at least 70 towns and cities. There were no casualties in Malta but extensive damage was caused to buildings in Valletta, Vittoriosa, Senglea, Cospicua and Mdina.
The oven was discovered by chance. The area where it is located was envisaged as an entryway in a project to create new office space in the building, which houses the Equality Ministry.
However, as work went on, it became apparent that information recorded on the building plans did not match the situation on the ground, so the decision was made to excavate the site.
Having been buried underneath layers of dust and earth, the oven has been preserved near perfectly.
Project manager Ivan Abela told Times of Malta that studies are being carried out in order to determine the age and other characteristics of the oven, so as to identify the best way to preserve the surprise find.
A prestigious seat that had housed two prime ministers in its day
The subterranean area, which is being regenerated as an extension of the Marsamxett project by the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation, may have been used as a stable as early as 200 years ago, Mr Abela said. This is indicated by the discovery of a staircase that leads up into the auberge.
During the works a number of water canals and a system of wells were also uncovered.
Mr Abela said the wells would be tested to determine their size. There would also be bacteriological testing to ensure that the well water isn’t contaminated by drainage.
The wells would then be restored and incorporated into the building’s drainage system in order to make use of second-class water.
Equality Minster Edward Zammit Lewis said he was delighted by the extraordinary find. It was important, he added, to discover more about the history of such a prestigious seat that had housed two prime ministers in its day.
Built in 1571, the Auberge d’Aragon is the oldest auberge in Valletta and the only surviving one that retains its original mannerist characteristics, as designed by resident engineer of the Order of St John, Girolamo Cassar.