Friday, January 05, 2007

History of Arbeia Roman Fort

I asked Mr. McGee to put this together AGES ago and he just finished it now and now he's bugging me every half an hour about whether I've gotten around to posting it yet. As if I'm the slow one!

Anyway, this is about our awesome vacation to archaeologically dig in September 2006. Following this piece will be a piece from Mr. McGee about our specific dig area, and then I'll write about what we did as diggers and vacationers. (Hopefully those will follow shortly. However, clearly there is major procrastination involved in this project.) Enjoy!



In 43 A.D., the Romans invaded Britain. For the next four centuries, Rome deployed troops throughout the island. These troops built forts, imported goods from distant lands, and spent money in the local economy. Simply because of the length of the Roman occupation, Roman military sites are among the most ubiquitous in the British landscape. Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most recognized landmarks in the medieval world, and still is today. However, many of these sites have been overlooked or misidentified over the years, and our understanding is still developing. The remarkable discoveries of wooden writing tablets (including the oldest known writing by a woman in Latin) preserved in anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda highlight the importance of the work yet to be done.

Arbeia, which lies just to the east of one end of Hadrian’s Wall, is one of the first Roman sites to have been excavated in Britain, and is unique in that the local community has owned and preserved part of the fort since the late nineteenth century. Archaeologists have thoroughly investigated the history of Arbeia through a series of excavations beginning in the 1970s.


The fort we know as Arbeia was built on a low headland overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne in modern day South Shields. Evidence of human occupation on this site extends back to 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. During this time, much of what is currently the North Sea was inhabited dry land, and the present coastline may not have been established until after 3,000 B.C. Prehistoric finds along the coastline near the Tyne River include various flints, burial sites, and bronze blades. Recently, an Iron Age farmstead, which dates from the third century B.C., was excavated underneath the southern portion of the fort. Occasional finds of flint tools under the Roman layers of the fort also suggest an earlier occupation.

Roman Occupation

Julius Caeser made expeditionary landings on the island in 55 and 54 B.C., and plans for a full-scale invasion were drawn up in subsequent years. However, Rome did not seek to annex Britain until 43 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius, who likely used Britain as an opportunity to consolidate his power in Rome through the traditional means of military achievement. Rome’s initial goal of taking control of the whole of Britain was delayed and never fully achieved, although it was also never consciously abandoned. The Roman army did not firmly establish itself in north-east England until the middle of the A.D. 80s.

It is very likely that a Roman fort was built at the mouth of the River Tyne late in the first century A.D. However, no fort from this period has been discovered, and the oldest buildings excavated at Arbeia date to circa A.D. 125. These buildings seem to belong to a civilian settlement typical of those that developed outside Roman frontier forts. There may be an early fort site buried beneath modern day buildings in South Shields.

In the A.D. 120s, Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to the north of the Stanegate, a road connecting Corbridge and Carlisle which marked the northern limit of sustained Roman penetration. As planned, the wall was to be built of stone (turf blocks in the west), 10 Roman feet wide, with forts and towers at regular intervals, stretching 80 Roman miles (73 modern miles) from the river Tyne in the east to Solway Firth in the west. Partway through the building process, the width of the wall was reduced to 8 Roman feet to save time. Although ships could not easily enter the mouth of the Tyne because the river was full of sandbanks and reefs, it served as an effective natural barrier to travel by land for several miles inland. Thus, Hadrian’s Wall was begun at Wallsend, several miles west of Arbeia, where the Tyne became fordable.

Twenty years after work had begun, Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned, and the Antonine Wall was built about 100 miles to the north, between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde, the narrowest point on the island. Hadrian’s Wall was reoccupied in the A.D. 160s. The first fort that has been excavated at Arbeia is a stone fort built during the time of this reoccupation. The fort covered 4.1 acres, with a fairly standard plan that accommodated 480 infantry and 120 cavalry. Evidence suggests that the garrison was substantially reduced in numbers towards the end of the second century. The fort was converted to a supply base circa A.D. 205-7. Most of the buildings inside the fort walls were demolished, and thirteen stone granaries were built. The south wall was demolished, and a new fort wall built to the south of the original wall, expanding the size of the fort to 5.2 acres. The fort garrison, the Fifth Cohort of Gauls, squeezed into this new southern area (only a quarter of the size of the original fort), with two granaries for their own needs, and a new headquarters building at the center of a new dividing wall separating the garrison from the supply area.

Despite its proximity to both the beginning of Hadrian’s Wall and the North Sea, Arbeia was not initially linked to the supply of the troops building the wall or of the troops that subsequently garrisoned the forts along its length. Arbeia was probably converted to a supply base to serve as a link in the supply chain up the coast for the campaigns waged by Emperor Septimius Severus in Scotland in A.D. 208-10, in an effort to distract his orgy-loving sons with good wholesome military invasions in the hinterlands. When these campaigns ended with Severus’s death in A.D. 211 (without the successful reformation of his sons), Arbeia became a supply base for the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall and other inland forts. During A.D. 222-235, seven granaries were added, and the accommodation for the garrison enlarged.

The soldiers who occupied Arbeia were auxiliaries (provincial levies) from elsewhere in the empire. Although the Roman legions were primarily responsible for building the frontier forts and Hadrian’s Wall, they were garrisoned in centralized legionary fortresses. The Legio VI Victrix constructed the earliest excavated fort. The Fifth Cohort of Gauls who garrisoned it would have been natives of Gaul. Most of the auxiliaries in Britain were drawn from the northwestern provinces of the Empire. Later in the Roman occupation, the auxiliaries tended to be British, as the foreign soldiers married native Britons and replenished their strength from the native population. However, the auxiliary units retained their original names.

A fire struck the fort in the late third or early fourth century, destroying many of the buildings and forcing an extensive rebuilding. This last overall rebuilding likely coincided with the substitution of a new unit for the previous garrison. This new unit was called numerus barcariorum Tigrisiensium, the company of Bargemen from the Tigris. This garrison remained throughout the fourth century until the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. As Arabs from modern- day Iraq, the Tigris Bargemen are the likely source of the name attributed to the fort: “Arbeia,” which is probably a Latin version of a word in Aramaic that means “the place of the Arabs.” Scholars have attributed the name Arbeia to the fort because an entry in the Notitia Dignitatum, a fourth-century Roman army list preserved in an eleventh-century medieval document. The entry identifies Praefectus numeri barcariorum Tigrisiensium with Arbeia. The post-Roman name of the site, recorded by the sixteenth-century antiquarian, John Leland, was Caer Urfa, probably a corruption of Arbeia. The name Horrea Classis (“the granaries of the fleet”), known from the Ravenna Cosmography, may have been attached to the site in the third century.

Post Roman Occupation and Excavations

Although the Roman occupation ended in the early years of the fifth century A.D., occupation of the fort continued. However, these times were unsettled and demonstrate a distinct lack of Roman order and law. In addition, the knowledge and resources to maintain the stone structures of the fort in good repair were no longer available. The west gate fell into disuse in the early fifth century, and a large ditch was dug in front of it. At a later date, the partially ruined gate was restored to use with the replacement of one of the gate arches by a timber entry. The Anglo-Saxons occupied the site later, but their timber buildings leave little physical evidence from which to determine their architecture or use. The sixteenth century recorded that the fort was the birth place of Oswin, a King of Deira who was killed in A.D. 651 and became a saint, but this attribution has not been conclusively proven or disproven.

Later residents in the area may have robbed building materials from the fort, a common fate for Roman remains in the Middle Ages. Otherwise, the site lay relatively untouched, other than continuous farming of the overlying fields, for 1000 years. In 1875, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners purchased the fields on the site and made them available for housing. Following the discovery of a Roman column by local Tyne river pilots, a local clergyman organized a limited exploratory excavation of the fort before construction began. This dig was only the second of a Roman fort in northern Britain. The excavators misidentified the few buildings they uncovered, but documented their results. The Corporation of South Shields agreed to preserve a small portion of the fort as the “People’s Roman Remains Park.” Housing was erected over the remainder of the site.

In 1933, Ian Richmond, a leading scholar of Roman archaeology, reviewed the documentation of the earlier dig and realized that the buildings uncovered had been granaries, indicating a Roman fort used as a supply base. He conducted excavations in 1949-50 that first accurately discovered the history of the fort. In 1953, the existing museum was opened, and shortly thereafter the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society was founded. Over the next two decades, important excavations were conducted, particularly after the bathroomless Victorian-era houses on the site, which had become slums, were demolished as part of an attempt to revitalize the area. In 1975, the Tyne and Wear Museums took responsibility for the fort. Currently, most of the area of the original fort is owned by the local community and available for excavation. However, the east gate and a portion of the northeastern fort lie under a row of private homes that were rebuilt after the 19th century houses were demolished but before South Shields decided to preserve the site.


Anonymous said...

Did you see the inscription on the fort walls?

"totus vestri substructio es erus nobis"

Tony said...


I read this article thinking "what the heck?!?" the whole time because my mind, unbeknownst to myself, changed the word foRt to foNt.


Anon E. Mouse said...

...but now that you read it correctly, did you translate the Latin?

Tony said...

Now THAT is some funny stuff...

However, I prefer:

"Semper ubi sub ubi."

anon e. mouse said...

My wife taught me that one - Always Wear Underwear.

My dad introduced me to the following poem:

Latin is a language
as dead as it can be
first it killed the ROmans
and now, it's killing me.