When archaeologist Dr Richard Miles and his team set off to excavate at the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia, they had no idea they would make an important find.
Although Carthage played a significant, if neglected, role, in the history of early North African Christianity, little of this had yet come to light.
But archaeologists' expectations were surpassed when they unearthed the remains of a massive, five-aisled church complex, so well preserved that almost all the original mosaic floors were intact.
Now the archaeological team is involved in a race against time to finish excavating the 6th-century site before it is redeveloped. Then they plan to "reconstruct" the church on the World Wide Web, using a pioneering new application of 21st-century digital technology to archaeology.
"The site was so big that it took us 18 months to find out its true extent," said Dr Miles. "It became a big joke that we couldn't find any walls; all we kept finding was more and more floor." He describes the complex as "one of the most important Christian buildings in one of the most important Christian centres of the Mediterranean".
The church's excellent state of preservation is due to a lucky accident of history. After the building, and the culture it represented, collapsed, the site was neither built on nor ploughed up, but reverted to pasture. But its luck runs out next year when, after 15 centuries, it will be destroyed by developers building a new judicial complex on the site.
Archaeologists have until autumn 2002 to complete the excavation of the most recent find - a series of subterranean crypts which they believe contain not only mosaics but wall paintings from the 6th or 7th Century.
Enthusiasts will be able to follow their progress via a website which they are currently developing as part of the project. "We plan a site that will be multi-layered, like an onion," says Dr Miles. "Some people may just be interested in looking at pictures of the mosaics, some will want to know about bits of 3rd-century pottery we have found, for example. …