ALGIERS (Reuters Life!) - Work to build a subway line through Algeria's capital has given archaeologists a chance to uncover traces of their country's ancient history that they thought had been erased by French colonial rule.
When engineers closed off part of Algiers' bustling Martyrs' Square to build an underground railway station, archaeologists seized the opportunity to investigate the site and, beneath layers of concrete, found a 5th century basilica.
They also found Ottoman-era metal forges and recovered cannonballs and a primitive pistol - an echo of the period in the 16th and 17th century when Barbary pirates used Algiers as a base to terrorize shipping in the Mediterranean Sea.
Historians are excited because the finds give a rare glimpse of the heart of ancient Algiers, the lower Kasbah, which was partially destroyed by 19th century French occupiers to make way for a parade ground and the colonial seat of government.
"This is our heritage," said Kamel Stiti, director of the team of Algerian archaeologists working on the site, as he sat in his office at the dig, a dusty steel container the other side of a metal fence from a busy bus stop.
"No one could have imagined that the earth was hiding these relics," he said. "Little by little we are in the process of rediscovering ... the Algeria which resisted colonization."
For centuries Algeria's coastline, with its fertile farmland and strategic ports, has attracted waves of invaders: Phoenicians, the Romans, Arab rulers, Ottoman governors and finally France, which ran Algeria until independence in 1962.
But now Algerian historians are focused on studying the indigenous cultures that lived alongside the occupiers -- part of the process of forging a national identity after French rule and a war of independence that killed around a million people.
The dig, on a section of Martyrs' Square that until a few months ago was a bus depot, has largely confirmed what archaeologists had found at sites elsewhere in Algeria.
Research there has uncovered evidence of habitation by successive generations of Amazigh societies, the indigenous people of Algeria and large parts of North Africa.
But its location -- and the rare opportunity to peer beneath Algiers' densely populated streets -- have meant the site is attracting keen interest. Passers-by peer through gaps in the metal fencing or clamber up lamp-posts to see what is happening.
Since archaeologists made their discoveries, work on the subway station has been put on hold.
The Algerian archaeologists, working alongside a team of French researchers, have dug two pits about seven meters deep.
Visible at the bottom of one pit are sections of mosaic from the floor of the basilica, made from ceramic pieces in green, white, blue and red arranged into intricate geometric patterns.
That structure was fresh evidence that Algeria's natives adopted Christianity. "It's true today that we are Muslims but perhaps before, the population came to worship God in the Christian style in the 5th century," said Stiti.
Tombs found underneath could be even older than the basilica: the archaeologists said radiocarbon dating on the skeleton fragments found there should reveal their age.
The cannonballs were found nearer the surface, in an area that made up part of an Ottoman-era artisans' quarter.
Five hundred years ago, craftsmen there could have manufactured the weapons the Barbary pirates used to strike fear into their victims.
"It shows the force of the region that dominated the Mediterranean for three centuries," said Stiti.
Editing by Paul Casciato