Arbeia upon Tyne

Last updated on March 8th, 2024 at 10:06 am

Arbeia, Roman, fort, South Shields

I’m driving through the terraced urban landscape of South Shields, in search of a Roman fort.  It is called Arbeia, a name believed to be a Latinised form of the Aramaic for ‘the place of the Arabs’, because the last known unit stationed there was a company of bargemen – possibly some kind of specialised marine force – from the region around the mouth of the Tigris, in what is now Iraq. The fort is surrounded by late 19th/early 20th century housing.  It’s a safe bet that the Romans never envisaged being in the middle of a residential area, though somewhere beneath the houses lie the remains of their ancient vicus, the civilian settlement that would have grown up around them and kept the troops supplied with life’s little essentials and luxuries.  Anyway, parking up, I could see no synergy between the fort and its current environment, and it struck me that it’s probably the latter that’s out of place.  However, the locality has obviously embraced the spirit of its heritage, because opposite the splendidly reconstructed west gate of Arbeia, the fortress, is the appropriately named Hadrian Primary School.  Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to present Arbeia, where original buildings can only be seen in two-dimensional outline, in the best possible way, with reconstructed barracks and luxury accommodation too.  Imagine the whole thing fully built…imagine the ages confronting one another…imagine the people who have passed this way…

Hadrian Primary School, Arbeia, Roman fort
Arbeia, South Shields

The Romans put a fort on the southern headland at the mouth of the Tyne to guard the eastern approaches to Hadrian’s Wall.  They weren’t the first to arrive; Lawe Top, as the headland is called, was occupied in at least 3000BC and the soldiers’ first parade ground was laid over an Iron Age round house.  The construction of Hadrian’s Wall, marking the northern border of the imperial Provincia Britannia, began in 122AD. The frontier’s vital nature declined briefly with the building of the Antonine Wall a hundred or so miles to the north, about 20 years later, and South Shields’ fortunes waned in parallel.  But Hadrian’s Wall was reoccupied in about 158AD and a new fort was built on Lawe Top in around 160AD, probably by men of the VIth Legion.  The first troops in occupation are believed to be an auxiliary unit recruited from the tribes in what is now part of Hungary, consisting of 480 infantry and 120 cavalry. Below the headland would have been a little port, for the landing of supplies.

View of Tynemouth from South Shields

Early in the 3rd century, Arbeia found itself at the centre of world affairs.  Firstly, everything was reorganised and it became a supply base for the forces manning the Wall.  The fort was enlarged, divided into two, enormous granaries replaced the buildings in the north of the compound, while accommodation was built for its troops, this time from Gaul, in the southern half.  In 208, the Emperor Septimus Severus arrived in Britain and there is compelling evidence that he based himself at Arbeia, along with his allegedly debauched, decadent and rival sons, Caracalla and Geta, while preparing to put down the wild Caledonian tribes north of the Wall.  Caracalla was actually joint emperor with his father and has a particularly nasty reputation.  So anyway, for a short time, South Shields would have been at the centre of a great empire, governed from Britain during Severus’ stay. The military campaign was not a success: despite having an invading army estimated to have numbered some 40,000 troops, the Romans found themselves caught up in the guerrilla tactics of the northern British tribes.  Severus, ill and in his 60s, died at York in 211, Caracalla and Geta ended hostilities, became joint emperors and returned to Rome.  Caracalla – something of a psychopath by all accounts – killed Geta.  Caracalla was in turn assassinated in 217: life can be a bitch, can’t it?

Arbeia, Roman Fort, Tyne & Wear
Arbeia, granaries

Arbeia was reconfigured  again between 222 and 235, to increase its storage capacity for keeping the garrisons on the Wall supplied. Then, toward the end of the century or early in the 4th century, Arbeia burnt down; was this an accident, or was it attacked? It seems the fort was briefly abandoned before being rebuilt for one final time, when a large and luxurious courtyard house was added and the number of granaries reduced.  The Tigris bargemen arrived in the 4th century and it is thought they remained until the end of Roman rule in Britain early in the 5th century. Before their arrival, the fort was possibly known as Lugudunum. Incidentally, not everyone agrees that Arbeia means ‘place of the Arabs’ – some think it could mean ‘the stream where wild turnips grow.’ I prefer the Arab story, but , in an effort to be thorough, offer you both interpretations.

Arbeia, Roman fort, Hadrian's Wall

Fifth century Britain is a place of shadows and uncertainty for historians, as order disintegrated in many parts and rival warlords competed to fill the power vacuum left by the departed Romans. However, life went on, one way or another, and in all likelihood Arbeia continued to be used, possibly as a stronghold.  It has even been suggested that it became an Anglo-Saxon royal house and the birthplace of the 7th century King Oswin (or Oswine) of Deira, a kingdom which stretched from the Tees (or the Tyne), south to the Humber.  Oswin was murdered in 651. In any event, eventually, the fort was abandoned forever and disappeared under farmland for a thousand years.  Part of the site was built on, but it has been frequently excavated since 1875 and continues to reveal astonishing and fascinating discoveries, many of which are exhibited in a small, but excellent, museum on site.

The types of finds include coins, jewellery, engraved rings, jet ornaments, lead baggage seals belonging to the imperial household, military equipment (such as swords and chain mail), pottery, commemorative stones (tombstones) altars – and bodies. The finds reflect the diverse nature of the Roman Empire, coming from places as far afield as Iraq, Syria, France, Spain and southern Britain. All are pieces of the historical jigsaw that would, if possible to assemble, tell the story of 300 years of Roman Arbeia – and perhaps beyond.  We’ll never have the complete jigsaw, of course, just tantalising hints and bits of blank sky.

Arbeia, burials

Among the more gruesome discoveries were the remains of two adolescents hastily buried in a pit in the courtyard house. They had weapon cuts to their skulls and decomposition had set in before burial. DNA analysis has been undertaken, but I couldn’t find the results online. So, who were these poor souls?  They could have been raiders or the victims of raiders, presumably dating from the sub-Roman period.

A table altar, most likely early Christian, was found in what was possibly the remains of a late-Roman church.

Table altar, early Christian, Arbeia
Regina's tombstone at Arbeia, South Shields

Finds that link us to identifiable people are often the most evocative.  Pictured is the tombstone of Regina – Queen, or perhaps ‘Queenie’. Her face is gone, but we can see her beautiful, flowing, long-sleeve robe and experts have picked out details like a necklace and bracelets. It is a high-status, expensive, memorial – yet she had been a slave. The Latin inscription reads:

To the spirits of the departed and to Regina, his freedwoman and wife
Barates of Palmyra set this up
She, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, died aged 30

The Catuvellauni tribe was based in what is now Hertfordshire, around St Albans – or Verulamium, as the Romans called it.  Barates, though, came from the great Syrian city of Palmyra – Barates added a less formal message in Aramaic, his native tongue, below the Latin inscription. This is unique in Britain.  It says:

Regina, freedwoman of Barates, alas

The tombstone dates from the time of Severus – early 3rd century. Perhaps Barates was travelling with Severus, met Regina along the way, fell in love, bought her from her family and set her free. We’ll never know – and we’ll never know how she died. By an amazing coincidence, someone called Barathes the Palmyran, aged 68, is commemorated up the road at Corbridge. It is probably the same man; perhaps he stayed in the area after Regina died. It gives me goosebumps, thinking of these people’s lives, so long ago.

Next door to Regina in the museum is a tombstone to Victor, aged 20, “of the Moorish nation” and another former slave, freed by Numerianus, a cavalryman, who also arranged his funeral. Victor is shown reclining on a bench, being served wine.

Arbeia, courtyard house
Arbeia, courtyard house
Arbeia, courtyard house

In addition to the impressive reconstructed west gate, Arbeia boasts a reconstructed barrack and part of the late-Roman courtyard house. Wherever possible, the same materials and methods were used in the reconstructions as would have been used by the Romans.  The house has an undoubtedly Mediterranean style to it. But neither it nor the barracks were withstanding the weather of England’s north-east particularly well when I visited; probably time for yet another re-fit.

Arbeia is apparently one of the most excavated Roman sites in Britain – though there’s still plenty to uncover. But one of the things that struck me about it, when researching, was the number of references to volunteers and trainee archaeologists from all over Britain, and indeed beyond these shores, as well as schoolchildren, getting involved. I think that’s just marvellous.

Arbeia, reconstructed west gate

41 thoughts on “Arbeia upon Tyne”

  1. Good article, thanks. As a native of SS I have to inform you that the Lawe Top was not a headland in Roman times, but part of an island latterly called ‘Skate Island.’ Other than that, most enjoyable.

  2. A wonderful post, Mike. The last time I went to Arbeia was in 1992 with eighty-odd Year 7 pupils during our yearly, week-long field trip to Hadrian’s Wall. I really enjoyed revisiting with you and reading the detail you’ve included about the politics, religion, intrigues and various characters in play at the time. It’s interesting that Arbeia is now one of the most excavated Roman sites in Britain. I’m still hooked on Vindolanda, which Nick and I have visited more times than I can remember. But, after seeing the virtually neglected site of Arbeia in 1992, I can appreciate how much it had to offer. Another visit to Arbeia is now a must…

  3. I had literally never heard of this place in my life, and that is surprising to me because I have been looking out for Britain’s unknown corners for years, mostly just for my own interest. So thank you. I have to confess I think that these Roman settlements were not the prettiest of places, a bit too many straight lines and identical buildings, I can see them rather liking Plattenbauten if they had lived a couple of thousand years later in E. Germany. I am doing a bit of ancestor hunting and considering going up to the NE (when the weather gets better, thank you), and hope to take a look here.

  4. Great post, Mike. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it always amazes me that people of ancient times traveled so far afield. That might explain why my DNA profile (shared by my brother) revealed 1% Nigerian as well as the more heavily represented English and Scandinavian. PS I know a blogger from the SS area. 🙂

  5. What an interesting site! I always amazes me to see constructions that have survived for so long. They had their family troubles, but the Romans certainly knew how to build! The bits of Regina’s story are tantalizing- I wish we could know more, but it’s fun to speculate…

  6. Hi Mike – what an amazing post. Incredible to think of Iraqis guarding the river Tyne … and Hungarians roaming around … history is so extraordinary … I’ll be back to re read – excellent information … and obviously Arbeia is a place to visit at some stage. Cheers Hilary

  7. Just to add another mystery to the Regina story – it looks as if she has been deliberately defaced. Look at the surrounding stone work, hardly a scratch, yet you can see the chisel marks where her face used to be. Done by a right handed person if I’m not mistaken, Watson! I wonder why?

  8. This was fascinating. Thanks for all your trips and insights into the lesser known sites in Britain.

  9. This seems familiar, Mike! Perhaps Time Team did a program? I’ve seen so many. Their place reconstructions and sketches of everyday life and people really makes the educated guesses come alive, makes us feel a part of it. At least for me. Must check the dictionary of place names, if there is one.

        1. Well, no luck. But, will have a stab at it (not knowing the topography of South Shields and the fort) –> high settlement. The Wikipedia article did it for me.

    1. Dunno about Time Team, Janina – probably! I love place names. But Arbeia isn’t even in the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names (which I use quite a lot). The academics seem to be generally happy with ‘the place of the Arabs’ so I’m happy with that. Not many Latin-based place names in Britain – apart from ‘chesters’ I suppose. 🙂

  10. It must be a thoroughly fascinating place, and I am glad so many people have participated – or are still active in one way or another – in making it come sort of alive again after so many centuries.
    The people there were real people with real lives, some of their daily worries and pleasures not so different from ours, and it is in places like these where we can feel that best.

  11. That’s a place I had never heard of, though I realized there would be settlement at the east end of Hadrian’s Wall. Is that third photo a model of the fort in its heyday? By the way, I’m of course glad that Severus failed to rout the Scots!

  12. Fascinating. I have enjoyed many holidays in this part of the world but I have never heard of Arbeia before… A place to visit next time I am in the area 🙂

  13. Regina’s sounds definitely like a Cinderella story, which always has appeal. The reconstructed barracks area certainly does look Mediterranean, with the clay tile roof! So interesting.
    Your theory about the Arabs is probably correct, but I like the thought of wild turnips growing there, nonetheless. 🙂

  14. I’m fascinated by the artifacts found in Roman Arbeia, trying to imagine the journey that brought to this place on the Tyne. And the youthful (by our measure) deaths. Dying at twenty and thirty? They barely had time to adjust to adult life.

    I’m with you about the meaning of the name. Wild onions just doesn’t seem as romantic as Arabs.

    1. “Dying at twenty and thirty? They barely had time to adjust to adult life.” When I was researching for my book about the Irish famine, I was appalled to discover the survival rates for working class people in British cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool in teh 19th century. Up to 50% failed to survive beyond the age of 5.

  15. A place I had not heard of before- fascinating details. I know the Romans had a tendency to move troops from their homelands to far stretches of their empire for years on end, but that’s a long way, Iraq to Britain.

  16. Another great post, Mike. I keep wondering why so many people think our connection to Europe is relatively recent. Understanding our history in the way you elucidate it makes it clear that it is intertwined with that of the rest of the continent in a way that cannot possibly be unraveled.

    1. Thanks, Frank. Britain’s history has always been influenced by Europe, one way or another; technology, trade, migration – and we’ve spent quite a lot of time bashing each other up… You could make a reasonable argument for the Roman Empire being an early version of the EU. Seriously.

  17. Excellent post. I recently read a book called Feast of Sorrow which details Apicus and his life and the slaves. There are detailed paragraphs about how they freed a slave and how the former slaves became part of a family. What you wrote about Regina and Bartaes makes me think about their lives,
    Loved the photos, as always.

    1. Thank you, your Fraggleship! Have popped over to see your Arbeia posts – you take MUCH better, photos than I do! Of course! Enjoyed your visit to Segedunum too – the history of that place is simply amazing.

  18. Interesting to read more about an intriguing – and somewhat murky – part of England and English history. I suspect that archeologists are conflicted about building reconstructions (they’re not, after all, the REAL thing); but for most people they answer so many questions about Place and Environment and to some degree, social status and interactions. Thanks for giving us a “picture” of that period in time.

  19. I agree; the artifacts are wonderful to look at and it’s a marvel they have survived so long, but it’s the people that bring history and places alive for me. Poor Regina and Barates! Two exiles ending their lives so far from home. Maybe Barates came to think of Arbeia as home? Thank-you for this excellent post, Mike.

  20. That was a fascinating visit…from the famous – and infamous – to a husband’s touching inscription on his wife’s tombstone, these people come alive in the setting of the fort.
    Thank you.

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