'It felt like Siberia: cold, grey and dark'

Laura McAtackney, 29, is writing her PhD at Bristol University on the remains of the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland

I first went to the Maze in January 2005. I'm from Belfast, and my family is apolitical. But if you come from Northern Ireland, everyone knows about the place. The first time was weird - when you read books, you never get a real sense of atmosphere.

It felt like being in Siberia: desolate, and incredibly cold, grey and dark. I stood there and thought, "This was a place that held thousands of prisoners and now it's empty." It was creepy.

For my PhD, I wanted to demystify the site. It's a public place, but no one knows what really went on behind closed doors. My research focuses on the remains of the Long Kesh Detention Centre and the H-Blocks.

The Maze has been empty of prisoners since September 2000 - most were released under the Good Friday Agreement. But it still has a prominent place in people's lives in Northern Ireland.

It was central to many significant moments of the Troubles, such as the hunger strike of 1980-1981. It's still a high-security site, owned by the Northern Ireland government, and one of my major problems has been access.

My first visit was on an organised tour, but I've since been round with Republican ex-prisoners, some of whom sayit was a place where everyone spoke Irish and there was comradeship. Others tell of people in cells for years on their own, who died young, and that there were a lot of mental-health issues.

I'm also looking at artefacts kept at the Northern Ireland Prisons Service museum, such as implements used for escape attempts, including food trays cut and sharpened and used to dig tunnels.

There has been a lot of debate about what to do with the site. A month after I first visited, the Maze Consultation Panel proposed a sports zone and an international centre for conflict and transformation. This meant knocking some of the site down. That was a shock. In October 2006, they started knocking down the internment camp. As an archaeologist, I'm not saying it should be retained in full, but there should be access to the public and to academics.

I've been to Robben Island and I was surprised that the guides knew so much about Northern Ireland. One asked me about Bobby Sands. He said that prisoners at Robben Island had been on a solidarity hunger strike. In South Africa, the way the site has been kept is all about remembrance and reconciliation; in Northern Ireland, it's too dangerous to do that. My thesis will be one of the few records of the site while it still existed.