ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 42, March 1999


Prisons that see progress in the past

The first modern survey of prisons has found that 19th century ideas are back, reports Allan Brodie

During 1997 a remarkable new prison floated into Portland Harbour in Dorset. A five-storey building sitting on a barge, containing kitchen, gymnasium, chapel, and accommodation for 400 inmates, Weare Prison inevitably invoked visions of the infamous prison-hulks anchored in British harbours 200 years ago.

In detail, of course, Weare Prison and the former hulks have little in common. Weare was originally built to accommodate troops in the Falkland Islands, while the hulks - normally demasted former naval vessels used from the mid-18th century until 1857 - were barbarous places where prisoners were kept in squalid, over-crowded conditions below deck. Yet the echo from the past is striking, and in a number of other ways late 20th century prison-building policy is looking back, consciously or unconsciously, to the penal methods of the past.

The return of some 19th century ideas emerged as a result of the first complete architectural survey of English prisons undertaken in modern times. The results of the recent survey, by the English Royal Commission (RCHME), will be published later this month. About 250 prisons were examined - including all prisons currently in use and about 50 former prisons - and for the first time a clear understanding of how prison buildings have changed over time has now emerged.

Weare Prison and the hulks were both provided as solutions to emergency prison accommodation problems. The hulks were first used to house prisoners during the Seven Years War of 1756-63, while Weare Prison served to alleviate the rapid rise in the prison population that has occurred during the 1990s. Between 1985 and 1995 the population ranged from 45,000 to 50,000 but in 1996/97 it reached over 56,000 and by July 1998 it stood at just over 66,000.

Most of the emergency places have been provided in new prefabricated steel or concrete wings that can be built in less than a year, known as DOW (Directorate of Works) VI wings. This type of wing, like other standard prison-wing designs of the late 1980s and 1990s, is a multi-storied building in which the cells are reached from galleries surrounding a large open central area. This arrangement was the standard form employed in all major Victorian prisons. The design was rejected in the progressive 1960s but it has now made its triumphant return.

The idea of prison cells on open landings came to Britain from the US, and was first used at Pentonville in 1842. From then on, all new British prisons had galleried wings. The design was successful because it permitted the enforcement of the `separate system' in which inmates ate, slept and worked alone in their cells in silence for 23 hours a day. A brief period of exercise and attendance at chapel were the only occasions when inmates left their cells. The open landings allowed a fewer number of warders to monitor a large number of cells and so to ensure that the prison's rules were obeyed.

Although the separate system was amended and ameliorated, prison wings continued to be built in the same form until World War I. Between 1914 and 1940 the prison population dropped from just under 20,000 to less than 10,000 and therefore no new adult prisons were built. Since 1940, however, it has risen almost continuously.

By 1950 the prison population again stood at 20,000. The difficult economic circumstances after the war meant that new purpose-built prisons could not be afforded and therefore many former military sites were pressed into use. By the 1950s, however, the need for new secure prisons had been recognised and Everthorpe Prison (East Yorkshire) opened in 1958 - again built in the `open landing' style. Its two long wings were linked to a central amenities complex by a single storied corridor.

The Prison Commission and the architectural press hated it. It was considered reactionary, a throw-back to outdated Victorian ideas, and inappropriate for a new era in which the rehabilitation of prisoners - their `training and treatment', in prison jargon - became the new priority.

A new type of prison design was adopted based on solid-floored multi-storey T-plan wings attached to the four corners of a central service block. The idea was that each of the three sections of the `T', each housing about eight to sixteen prisoners, would be treated as a group for whom training and treatment programmes could be devised. In theory, in their small groups prisoners would build good relations with one another and with the officers. This `New Wave' design was first employed at Blundeston Prison (Suffolk) which opened in 1963 and its plan was adopted at five other sites. Floored cell blocks became the basis of all prison designs until the mid 1980s.

However, by this time the problems with these wings had been recognised. The short spurs, often lit by striplights and a small window, were claustrophobic and difficult to supervise. The new buildings were often badly built and poorly designed. The widespread use of flat roofs caused immediate, costly maintenance problems.

The return to an open design began in 1986 with the opening of two wings at Standford Hill Prison (Kent). They were praised for the improved supervision that they offered and because they allowed light and air to permeate the building. Although these wings brought a return to Victorian forms, there was no return to the Victorian separate system. The 50 or 60 inmates of each wing are free to move around.

The Standford Hill blocks prompted an immediate change in the design of new prisons. Although the plans of new prisons were still related to the designs of the 1960s, with cruciform wings linked to a central facilities complex, the internal appearance of wings was transformed. New prisons of this type included Belmarsh (Greater London), Whitemoor (Cambridgeshire) and Bullingdon (Oxfordshire), which opened in 1991 and 1992.

Six standard wing designs (of which DOW VI is the latest) are now used to add accommodation to existing prisons. The first of the series, the `Bedford Unit', is almost square in plan with cells on three sides and offices and facilities on the fourth - differing slightly from the former `open landing' design which was more rectangular with cells on only the two long sides. The Bedford Unit bears an odd resemblance to ideas first promulgated by the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his design of the Panopticon prison - a circular model designed to allow officers the easiest possible supervision of inmates. The Panopticon design was never built in Britain, but appeared in Holland and the US (for example, the Joliet Prison in Illinois).

The 1990s has also seen the creation of privately managed prisons. By involving private companies in the design and construction of prisons, a number of innovative ideas have been introduced, and some of these again have antecedents in earlier English prisons.

Lowdham Grange (Nottinghamshire), for example, has two X-shaped units that each have four wings with open landings radiating from a central security station. These are the first prison buildings since the 19th century to adopt this combination of plan and form. At Altcourse in Merseyside and Buckley Hall in Rochdale, the security company Group 4 use turn-stiles to regulate the movement of inmates around the prison. Although turnstiles seem a modern feature, they were used by William Blackburn in the 1780s to separate different classes of inmate within a single prison.

Blackburn also employed a perimeter wall design in which the top courses were left loose, so that an escaping inmate would trigger a collapse, alerting the warders and delaying the escape. In a remarkable echo, a security fence at Parc Prison at Bridgend is designed to collapse under the weight of an inmate.

Allan Brodie directed the prisons survey for RCHME. Behind Bars: the Hidden Architecture of England's Prisons will be published this month

Return to Table of Contents | Return to CBA Homepage

From art and tools came human origins

Evidence of modern human behaviour 200,000 years old may have been found in Africa. Larry Barham explains

Until fairly recently, modern humans were thought to have emerged some 40,000 years ago. There were several theories about how we had evolved from earlier species such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. Then, during the 1980s, new dating techniques were employed on early modern human fossils with startling results: our species was between 150,000 and 100,000 years old, with a clear origin in Africa. Genetic (DNA) evidence supported the case, and the `Out of Africa' theory of human origins was born.

During the 1990s, the trend of pushing back the dates of modern human origins continued. The evidence was still coming from Africa and the `Out of Africa' theory, despite some temporary setbacks, has been strengthened. Moreover, a totally new type of evidence - for modern human behaviour, in addition to modern skeletal form - has also been brought into play.

In recent years, remarkable new evidence has been found in Africa for the earliest use of pigment, dating to between 200,000 and 350,000 years ago. The use of pigment for body-painting or drawing suggests a `symbolic' awareness which has long been regarded as one of the hallmarks of modernity.

Also from Africa comes evidence for new ways of making and using stone tools. Hafted knives and spears appear by 200,000 years ago, and for the first time we see regional styles in tool shapes after more than a million years of little change. These innovations are tell-tale signs of a more advanced hominid.

Before the `Out of Africa' theory arose, many researchers believed that modern humans evolved independently in several parts of the world - descending, that is, as much from Peking Man as from Broken Hill Man. Neanderthals, occupying Europe for much of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic (about 300,000-30,000 years ago), were regarded as immediate ancestors.

New dating research in the 1980s, however, showed that in the Middle East modern humans coexisted with Neanderthals 100,000 years ago. Neanderthals could not be our direct ancestors as we were just as old as they were. The results led to new dates being sought for the African fossils where a sequence tracing the development of the fully modern form was dated to 150,000-100,000 years ago.

The dating techniques included two - thermoluminescence (TL) and electron spin resonance (ESR) - which measure the accumulation of `ambient' radioactive damage to an artefact over time; and uranium-series (u-series) dating which measures the rate of change of one isotope of uranium into another. The technique provides very accurate dating of layers of calcium-rich cave deposits, and artefacts or fossils within them.

Independent support for the dating evidence came from genetics. Research in the 1980s on genetic diversity among living humans revealed the unity of our species. Beneath our superficial differences we were all essentially the same. This uniformity suggested a relatively recent origin for

Homo sapiens -between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago based on assumed rates of mutation. We are simply too similar as a species to be descended directly from a distant relative like Peking Man (Homo erectus).

The identification in 1997 of mitochondrial DNA in the type specimen of Neanderthals appeared to prove the case. The DNA could not be matched with any living population, European or otherwise. The large number of mutations between the ancient Neanderthal DNA and our own indicated that about 400,000 years had passed since we last shared an ancestor.

The genetic evidence therefore suggested that Neanderthals evolved into a distinctive species well adapted to the rigours of glacial periods in Eurasia, when modern humans were absent. In 1993, new skeletal evidence buttressed the point, when about 30 proto-Neanderthals were found in a deep limestone shaft near Atapuerca in Spain. These skeletons showed that Neanderthal features were emerging by 300,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, the refinement of dating techniques continues apace. A new, still experimental variant of u-series dating called gamma-ray spectrometry has been tested on two human skeletal fragments from Kenya. It suggests that hominid brains may in fact have reached their modern size long before 200,000 years ago and up to 300,000 years ago. The technique, however, needs further testing.

The African fossils from 200,000 years ago show a mix of modern and more ancient features. Typically, their skulls are large like ours with a fully modern brain size, but with prominent brow ridges. Below the neck their bodies are more robust than ours but are otherwise modern, having relatively long limbs compared with the Neanderthals who occupied Europe at the time.

Modern bodies and brain-sizes have always implied modern behaviour, but until recently no evidence for modern behaviour was known from this period. Now, however, researchers in Africa have begun to find some of the evidence they were looking for.

Lumps of yellow, red and black mineral pigments, showing marked signs of heavy use, have been found where I work at the cave site of Twin Rivers, near Lusaka in Zambia, and by Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut who is excavating open air sites in the Kapthurin Formation near Lake Baringo in northern Kenya. The Zambian pigments lay between two calcium carbonate layers dated to 350,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago. The Kenyan pigments were found with artefacts under a volcanic ash layer dated to 240,000 years ago.

Pigment use among living hunter-gatherers is usually associated with art - including body painting - and ritual. The making of art and the practice of ritual are fully modern behaviours and reflect our ability to create symbols and layers of meaning through language. In Europe, pigments (mainly black) have been found at about a dozen Neanderthal sites, but none is much earlier than about 50,000-40,000 years ago. The earliest pigment use in Britain was found with the `Red Lady of Paviland', a male skeleton found last century in a Glamorgan cave, whose ochre-stained remains date from 27,000 years ago.

At the same sites in Zambia and Kenya, separate innovations at around 200,000 years ago involved tools made of multiple parts that must have been hafted to shafts and handles. In Zambia, we find long carefully-shaped spear points - the oldest in the world - while in Kenya we find long sharp blades that are unusable without a handle.

Although no wooden handles were found at either site, elsewhere in Zambia, 200,000-year-old wooden artefacts - carefully carved tear-shaped throwing sticks - have been found in waterlogged deposits, proving that people of this time knew how to manipulate wood. Spears dating from about 400,000 years ago have been found at Schönigen in Germany but these were simple sharpened wooden javelins without stone points. Neanderthals hafted tools too, and even made blades, but in Africa these changes in technology are earlier and more varied.

Why, then, do we find the emergence of modern bahaviours before 200,000 years ago? One explanation may be found in the climate. This was a period of deep glacial cold (Oxygen Isotope Stage

8), whose effects in Africa would have included a sharp drop in rainfall together with an increase in strong sand-blowing winds. Together these conditions would have led to a spread of deserts in the north and south of the continent and a retraction of the habitable savannahs. New behaviours can arise from pressure on resources, and new species from formidable geographical barriers like spreading deserts.

Behavioural changes themselves would have led to changes in human anatomy. The innovation of specialised hafted tools, for example, meant a reduced need for body strength resulting in the lighter skeleton of modern humans.

More efficient tools may have secured a more reliable supply of food, enhancing chances of survival to reproductive age for more people and ultimately leading to a growth in population. Add to this the bonding effects of ritual among small groups and the stage is set for more co-operative ventures, whether hunting, gathering or the creation of networks of like-minded groups linked by genes, beliefs, and language. This combination of social and technological flexibility would be a decisive advantage in any environment, eventually allowing modern humans to spread out of Africa and supplant other hominid populations in the rest of the globe.

Dr Larry Barham is Director of CHERUB (the Centre for Human Evolutionary Research at the University of Bristol)

Return to Table of Contents | Return to CBA Homepage

An image of ancient English woodland

Excavated wood can reveal the look of the tree and how it was tended, writes Damian Goodburn

The history of Britain is in some ways the history of its trees. One of the enduring images of early prehistoric Britain is of a vast, dense forest, which gradually vanished over the centuries as a result of clearance for timber, settlement or agriculture.

This traditional image, however, is largely a myth because the evidence on which it was based - pollen from ancient trees - is unreliable. Pollen can be carried, in wind or water, far from its original source, and some pollens survive better than others. Pollen can tell us about the existence of certain trees, but it tells us nothing about how dense, how tall, what shape the trees were, or indeed anything about the way they were managed.

Over recent years, however, a new approach has been taken to understand early woodland. In his pioneering studies, the historical botanist Oliver Rackham showed that study of the timber and roundwood in medieval and later buildings could provide a detailed picture of some contemporary trees and woodland management practices. In doing so, he over-turned a number of traditional ideas. For example, people used to think that medieval oaks were massive, but in fact the vast majority of buildings were built with small oaks, their trunks sometimes as little as 6in (15cm) in diameter. These trunks were squared off and typically either used whole or split in half.

Slowly archaeologists have realised that excavated wood holds a similar potential, not only for historical periods but for prehistory too. Different types of woodwork have been studied, such as boat timbers and barrels, which were often made of different types of trees from those normally used in buildings. Tree-ring studies have refined the dating of changes to the composition of woodland. In London, where the majority of this work has been done, many detailed studies of woodwork from the Bronze Age to the early 19th century have been carried out.

These studies have enabled us to begin telling the story of the slow domestication of the great `wild-wood' - the natural forest cover that developed since the last glaciation - and its conversion into various types of managed woodland alongside open farmland.

Broadly, by analysing a timber it is possible to reconstruct the log from which it was taken, and from the log to reconstruct the tree as a whole. The pattern or straightness of the grain indicates the shape of the tree. In the wildwood, or in `wildwood-type' environments where the wood grew untouched for 300 years or more, trees were extremely tall and straight. This is because they were competing with other trees for the light above, and were protected by the density of the forest from buffeting by the wind. Often they had no large branches below 30-50ft (10-15m) from the ground.

An oak in an open environment, by contrast, will often begin to branch only a few feet (less than 2m) above the ground. It is rare today to find an oak with more than about 6ft (2m) of straight grain.

Starting with the Roman period, it is now clear that Londoners drew on two completely different types of oak-rich woodland for building materials. For timber buildings they made fairly standardized wall-studs (small uprights to which panelling or laths were fixed), but while many of these studs came from small, fast growing oaks 20-40 years old, others were split from huge, slow growing, old oaks that had lived in a form of high, dark wildwood. The two types of oak are often found side by side in the same building and are hard to tell apart from a distance. Presumably supply or cost factors determined which type of oak was used in each circumstance.

The young oaks have features which suggest an origin in some form of long growing coppice. Studies of prehistoric woodwork show that coppicing goes back to the Neolithic at least. In this system, trees are cut down close to the ground every few years and then sprout from the stumps - it is a highly sustainable system. By contrast, the harvesting of wildwood was not sustainable and by the end of the Roman period, trees used for building-timber were mostly younger and old-growth wildwood trees rare.

We have very little evidence for the following early and middle Saxon periods, but by the 890s our material record picks up again. Whilst some woodwork appears to come from intensively managed woodland - such as woven wattle hurdles made from coppiced stems - other timbers such as split-oak building weatherboards often came from huge slow-grown oaks 3ft (1m) or more in diameter and over 200 years old. These large oaks appear to have been growing in conditions of high dark forest similar to wildwood. As this wildwood-type oak, and sometimes beech, is commonly found it must have been moderately widespread in the London hinterland 1,000 years ago, reflecting a decrease in the intensification of land-use over the preceding centuries.

Very little wildwood-type material of English origin has been found in London from after 1200, and this type of woodland must have been extinct in the South East by about 1250, with all the implications for dependant flora and fauna that that entails. Bears, wolves, wild swine and wild cattle, all these and other creatures require large areas of dense woodland away from areas of settlement. By the 14th century fine split-oak boards made of wildwood oak were being imported from eastern Europe. The British tradition of large scale, unsustainable harvesting of foreign wildwoods had begun.

What was British wildwood like, and how did it vary regionally? A highly distinctive form of floodplain wildwood has recently been found in London by Sophie Seel of the Institute of Archaeology, in the form of whole groups of wind-blown trees in waterlogged prehistoric peats on both banks of the Thames. This extinct form of natural woodland was principally a mix of oak, yew, alder and ash - a woodland composition that is never found naturally today.

More typical around London, however, must have been woodland rich in oak, which completely dominates the timber record for the Roman period in fuel as well as building materials. There was also a small amount of alder. Strangely enough elm and beech were never used at this date. Elm starts to be used from the 14th century as round timber for building piles, and only for planking from the 16th century. Beech begins to be used as a building material in the Saxo-Norman period. In other parts of the country, we see slightly different trees being used. Near Carlisle, for example, there is considerable use of birch and alder. To some extent this must reflect the trees that were available locally, but our understanding is skewed by the tree-types favoured for woodworking, which may not reflect the composition of the woodland as a whole.

Examination of wood from all periods has shed fascinating light on woodworking techniques. The splitting of large timbers and boards with the use of wedges is a characteristic of using straight-grained wildwood timber, but this ancient technology was gradually replaced by sawing on trestles. Sawing could make better use of the smaller, knottier tree trunks produced by intensive management in later medieval times.

Pollarding started early, with clear evidence that the short, fat stems of pollarded oaks were used for sawn planking in the 13th century. In pollarding, repeated crops of poles are cut from the tops of living stems standing just above grazing height.

By the 16th century there was a considerable increase in the girth of many of the oaks that were used, and they were typically very fast grown and branchy. On some sites it is quite impossible to find timbers with the requisite 50 or more rings for tree-ring dating, even though the timbers may be large. This suggests that these trees were mainly growing in hedges and parkland where there was little competition from other trees. Their large stems were commonly divided by a new sawing technique in which logs were slung over sawpits, allowing a pair of woodmen to saw up the trunk with one standing below the tree and the other above.

By the 17th century various imported softwoods start to be widely used coming from tall, straight, easily processed and shipped trees. By around 1800 we start to find timber from tropical forest regions, such as off-cuts of teak baulks, particularly on Thames-side shipbuilding sites. Soon, few woodworking trades in London used any home-grown timber at all. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries sailing barge builders in London, for example, preferred to use timber from the North-West Pacific coasts of North America for most of their work. And why? Because timbers from those areas of surviving wildwood could be up to 65ft (20m) long by 16in (40cm) square in a single piece.

Damian Goodburn is a specialist in ancient wood at the Museum of London's Specialist Services department

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1999