Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:59 am
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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.