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Cover of British Archaeology 84

Issue 84

September/October 2005



We found new megalith, say dowsers

Good news for Silbury Hill - if money is found

Orkney dig first to date gold and amber jewellery

Objectors scent victory at Stonehenge

Exeter bids for new students

Stone plaque is first neolithic face in over a century

In Brief


Saving the H Blocks - Long Kesh/Maze: An archaeological opportunity
The artefacts of fear...and why we should preserve them - Laura McAtackney questions Northern Island proposal

Cemetery requiem for a lost age
Roberta Gilchrist reveals extraordinary Christian practices

Lake rescue
Saving Llangors Crannog, a unique medieval Welsh royal island, from erosion

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Long Kesh/Maze: An Archaeological Opportunity

Tony Blair described the July 28 IRA announcement of an end to war against Britain as a "step of unparalleled magnitude". Earlier this year aconsultation panel recommended demolition of all but a select sample of a powerful monument to the tragedies. Laura McAtackney asks: why the haste?

In Northern Ireland terminology is everything, and Long Kesh/Maze is no exception. Such a convoluted title reflects a reality where place names can have political connotations, but also that the site encompasses two different prisons: the Long Kesh Detention Centre and the H Blocks of the Maze. Now formally renamed the Maze Regeneration Site, it is one of the most memorable manifestations of the recent strife in Northern Ireland.

For 30 years it was a prominent feature of the conflict, central to many significant moments. Such would include the highly public escalation of republican protest at the removal of special category status (attempting to criminalise paramilitary prisoners) culminating in the hunger strike of 1981; and the impromptu visit in 1998 of then secretary of state Mo Mowlem, to persuade loyalist paramilitary leaders to remain on ceasefire. Long Kesh/Maze was no spectator: its existence facilitated, instigated and enabled both communities and the state in their actions.

Long Kesh/Maze lies outside the town of Lisburn, some 15km from Belfast, containing over 300 buildings across 360 acres (145ha). Unused since vacated by the RAF shortly after the second world war, the site was renamed the Long Kesh Detention Centre when existing Nissen huts were deployed for the influx of prisoners after internment was introduced in 1971.

In 1975 the Gardiner report recommended building a cellular prison and withdrawing special category status. The H Blocks were built as an interim measure, whilst a new purpose-built facility was constructed at Maghaberry. This "interim measure" became de facto permanent, and the H Blocks accommodated almost exclusively paramilitary prisoners from 1976 until the site finally closed in September 2000. Due to Northern Ireland Prison Service policy, when a new building was needed they simply moved on without removing the obsolete areas: the stages of the site's development largely remain in situ.

Before violence escalated in the late 1960s, Northern Ireland had one of the smallest prison populations in Europe, with less than 700 inmates. It is now estimated that 25,000–30,000 people were interned or jailed at some point during the conflict. Long Kesh/Maze is the most prominent physical manifestation of this devastating shift in Northern Irish society. The impact can be seen in the vast array of wall murals: the iconic aerial image of the H Blocks in republican areas, as telling of the media impact on the conflict as the conflict itself, and more commonly the walls, wire and watchtowers in loyalist areas, more reminiscent of former prisoner of war camps.


With the last inmates released or transferred after the implementation of the Good Friday agreement in 2000, the site effectively ceased to be a prison. One might think its power to kindle debate diminished. However, there has been a palpable desire to find a new future for Long Kesh/Maze. It remains in limbo, at an uncomfortable crossroads between the present and past, between history and heritage.

In May 2002, under the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative, many former security sites were transferred to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). Amongst them were the Crumlin Road gaol, security bases at Belfast and Magherafelt and the Maze site. By its very nature Long Kesh/Maze was the most contentious, and it immediately created a vast chasm between retainers and demolishers.

It was quickly realised that the site had "unique significance". It was the largest area available for public regeneration, and it was "also of historical significance, given its role in the Northern Ireland conflict, and earlier during World War II" (Maze Report, p6). However, the need to be, and to appear to be, even-handed was paramount. The Maze Consultation Panel was established, with members from the ofmdfm secretariat and a representative from each of the four major parties (UUP, SDLP, DUP and SF), conveniently allowing an even split between nationalist/republican and unionist/loyalist input.

Long Kesh/Maze's future also caught public attention. Screen and print media reflected this in editorials, articles and particularly letters pages for an extended period prior to the publication of the panel's proposals. The mainstream Belfast Telegraph increasingly speculated that the site would become a national stadium; in Raze it to the Ground (April 27 2004), former internee Paddy Joe McClean said he wished to see it demolished. The more nationalist Irish News, in articles such as Ex-internee calls for Maze Museum (February 21 2004), pushed for some degree of retention.

Under increasing media glare, the Maze consultation panel published its proposals on February 24 2005.


Much media attention focused on the document as a compromise, both for the politicians who negotiated it and for the future use of the site:

"The province's warring politicians have finally agreed on one thing – a way to develop the 360-acre site so that it can become a beacon for the future – while still enshrining, forever, its own troubled past... [the panel] has come up with a unanimous report which has compromise at its heart" (BBC News UK edition, February 23 2005).

The main area of compromise centres on the retention/destruction debate. Whereas many unionists would not be happy to see the prison retained in full and risk it becoming a republican pilgrimage site, many republicans would reject a proposal to level all the physical manifestations of their struggle, particularly those linked to the 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981. The panel's compromise can be seen in the key, government-led elements, which are the Sports Zone and the International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The Sports Zone will cover 50–60 acres (20–25ha), aiming to provide a high quality international venue "in a shared and inclusive way" (Maze report, p11). How a sports stadium can be shared and inclusive is revealed by the proposals for football, Gaelic games and rugby.

One immediate problem can be identified in that the panel could only state that they "believe" the proposal will be supported: members of the Gaelic Athletic Association may not be keen to play on this site. Ironically, if all the sporting bodies do agree, another problem arises: the vastly different pitch sizes needed for each sport. Gaelic games need a pitch 130–145m long by 75–90m wide. Football spectators would be very far from the action, with pitches 90–120m long and 45–90m wide.

By far the most controversial element is the International Centre for Conflict Transformation (ICCT), earmarked to cover 15 acres (6ha), with the only retained elements. These would be an h Block, administration building, hospital building and chapel alongside a Nissen hut (transported from its original location), a section of perimeter wall, a watch tower and second world war remains.

Interestingly, these elements are not mentioned until point 15 of the proposal's ICCT section. Early sections concentrate instead on the new elements – archive, accommodation and conference space – perhaps aware of the potential controversy?

However, the real controversial elements are more subtly enclosed.

Alongside the further recommendations that the site could be used for a Rural Excellence and Equestrian Zone (40–60 acres/15–25ha) and light industry (80–100 acres/30–40ha) there is to be a Retained Zone of c100 acres (40ha) set aside for future use. Though this area may not be used for 15–20 years, it "should be cleared and decontaminated" (Maze report, p29).

This is doubly troubling: why clear such an iconic site, much discussed but little researched or understood, before necessity dictates? And why should less than 15 acres be retained when space is evidently not an issue?

Perhaps the consultation panel's guiding principles best explain their attitude. These are making the site "a beacon for the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative", and "a key physical expression of the transformation from conflict to peace" (Maze Report, p6). There is a clear desire for change, to rid the site of its tainted history and negative associations.

In Recommendation 3.10, a section on Symbolic Development further explores ways to rebrand the site and to cast off old connotations. Through the use of iconic art in particular there is a desire to turn the Maze into "a symbol of confidence and hope for the people of Northern Ireland" (p30).

However, such an outcome is not necessarily easy or even always possible. Many commentators on heritage creation and consumption, for this is what the proposal is, have stressed that collective identity or heritage do not supersede or replace that of the individual. Once an image is created, it does not remain static or stable. Its impact will vary through individual, time and space. Heritage can be created by officialdom: it can also be subverted by the public.


Nonetheless the Maze proposal has much to recommend it. It represents a successful compromise and facilitation of cross-party dialogue when such contact is rare during the suspension of devolution (a continuing state). But is compromise the best solution? It is clearly appropriate for its context, supporting Robert David Sack's view that heritage is "the part of the past which we select in the present for contemporary purposes". But should we consider the long-term implications?

What do we really know about the Maze site? It is still categorised as high security with public access only through application to ofmdfm. There has been limited academic investigation, and few have had unlimited access.

The piecemeal remains proposed for retention do not allow a full understanding of the prison as a landscape of buildings. Selecting one of each building type, some moved out of context, will create a collection of isolated artefacts, not a site. To truly understand the site the context and landscape must be considered. Despite the proposal's claims that visitors will be given "straightforward factual information", what remains will constitute the official version of the Maze's history (Maze Report, p17). Can an objective story of Long Kesh/Maze ever be told?

Archaeology is particularly applicable to this study. With an abundance of remains there are ample extant buildings and artefacts in situ. Building biographies, particularly for the H Blocks and Nissen huts, could be discovered through careful examination of plans and remains. We can ascertain how the buildings were originally conceived, and what alterations by the prison authorities and subversions by the prisoners occurred. This could include both structural and superficial changes, such as the wall murals and graffiti.

In turn this could also lead to examination of how the structures of the Long Kesh/Maze site were remembered and considered in the wider Northern Irish communities, especially through wall murals and related artefacts.

Whereas most archaeologists have to interpret excavated remains with little contextual information, Long Kesh/Maze is especially significant in that many of its prisoners and officers are alive. Oral histories could be created as people interacted with the site, revisiting places and things they presumed they would never see again. This would provide insights into how the prison functioned, and an interesting counterbalance to official records of its past.

The study of artefacts associated with the Maze could also be illuminating. These include the official prison objects, the prisoner's own belongings and handicrafts made by prisoners for use inside and outside jail. For example, items made for an external audience could offer a deeper understanding of how the different prisoners viewed, or wished others to believe they viewed, themselves, their "struggle" and their relationship with fellow prisoners and the authorities.

Before the site is rebranded, regenerated and reused Long Kesh/Maze needs to be studied to allow questioning, exploration and understanding of the recent past in Northern Ireland. It is an ideal site for such an investigation. Despite fears of republicans "claiming" the site it is fundamentally shared. Furthermore, it is a site where many of the components of the conflict came together: republican and loyalist paramilitaries, security forces, the mass media, uses of propaganda and some of the conflict's biggest controversies and breakthroughs.

Long Kesh/Maze has been closed only five years. Perhaps more time is needed to reflect and consider its impact before a decision can be made on its future.

Report of a Committee to Consider, in the Context of Civil Liberties & Human Rights, Measures to Deal with Terrorism in Northern Ireland (Gardiner report) London HMSO, 1975, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh (Maze Consultation Panel final report) February 2005, Laura McAtackney is a PhD student at the department of archaeology and anthropology, University of Bristol

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