SOUTH SHIELDS ROMAN FORT (ARBEIA)
South Shields Roman Fort, known to the Romans as Arbeia, was an important logistical depot that sustained the troops garrisoning Hadrian’s Wall and supported the military campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus during his invasion of Scotland in the third century A.D. The site now boasts several reconstructed Roman buildings including a Gatehouse and Commanding Officer's House.
South Shields is located near the mouth of the River Tyne at its confluence with the North Sea. The area had significance to the Romans for two reasons. Firstly, it formed a key part of Hadrian's Wall, the frontier system that ran along the Tyne-Solway isthmus. South Shields was located just four miles beyond the eastern terminus of the wall at Wallsend (Segedunum) and prevented anyone by-passing the linear barrier by simply crossing the River Tyne. Secondly, the fort's proximity to the North Sea meant it was an ideal location for large sea-going vessels to offload supplies for onward movement to the inshore garrisons via smaller river barges. For both these reasons, a fort was established at South Shields circa AD 129 and remained garrisoned even when Hadrian's Wall was (briefly) decommissioned in favour of the more northerly Antonine Wall.
South Shields Fort was built by the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) and was configured in the traditional 'playing card' shape with a headquarters in the centre, flanked by twin granaries and a Commanding Officer's house with barracks and workshops in the quadrants. The first garrison was the First Wing of Sabinus's Pannonians (Ala Primae Pannoniorum Sabiniana), a 500-strong cavalry regiment traditionally recruited from the area that is now Hungary.
Around AD 208, Emperor Septimius Severus arrived on the Tyne in order to pacify the northern tribes. To support his campaigns, South Shields Roman Fort was converted into a supply base to support the large scale operations north of the wall. Many of the barracks of the original fort were demolished and replaced with granaries to hold supplies. The original garrison of South Shields, the First Wing of Sabinus's Pannonians, were relocated to Halton Chesters (Onnum) at this time and were replaced with the Fifth Cohort of Gauls (Cohors Quintae Gallorum) who had originally been attested to at Cramond Roman Fort. Nevertheless, it is likely the fort's primary role was to serve as a base for the British arm of the Roman Navy, the Classis Britannica.
The Severus campaigns came to an end in AD 211 following the Emperor's death. Nevertheless, South Shields Fort remained garrisoned and continued to provide a logistical support for Hadrian's Wall. The fort was even expanded with the addition of a further seven new granaries between AD 222 and AD 235. It remained occupied by the military throughout the rest of third and fourth centuries with the garrison changing to the Company of Bargemen from the Tigris (Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium) towards the end of the latter. This unit was traditionally recruited from the Middle East and it is possible this is why South Shields acquired its Latin name, Arbeia, which translates as 'place of the Arabs'.
The Roman military withdrew from Britannia in the early fifth century AD. Thereafter it is possible the site continued to be occupied and it has been mooted as the birth place of St. Oswin, King of Deira, who was killed in AD 651. Ultimately though, without the expertise of the Roman military, the fort fell into a state of decay.
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Arbeia is a major tourist attraction run by Tyne and Wear museums. Aside from the partially excavated remains of the Roman Fort, there are impressive reconstructions of a Roman Gatehouse, Commanding Officer’s House and a barrack block (which includes a variety of interpretations of the internal layout).
Arbeia Roman Fort Layout. When originally built in the second century AD, Arbeia was originally configured in the standard layout for an auxiliary cavalry fort with a headquarters building in the centre which was surrounded by two granaries, a Commanding Officer's house and barracks. However, it was converted into a supply base circa-AD 208 to support an invasion north of the wall by Emperor Septimius Severus. Barrack blocks were demolished and replaced with additional granaries at this time. Twenty years later, long after the Severus campaigns had ended, additional granaries were added to support the fort's role of supplying the inshore garrisons along the eastern portion of Hadrian's Wall. In total 22 granaries were included within the fort's walls.
West Gate. The west gate was reconstructed in the 1980s. Since then archaeological investigation has suggested that the towers were probably at least one storey higher. Although the bare stone work is visible, this would originally have been plastered, whitewashed and finished with faux marbling.
Commanding Officer's House. The Commanding Officer's house associated with the third century AD fort has been rebuilt on its original foundations. Unusually the house was constructed in the south-eastern corner adjoined to a barrack block.
Barrack Block. One of the barrack blocks has been reconstructed along with several interpretations of the internal arrangements.
South Eastern Angle Tower. The foundations of the south-eastern angle tower, as well as the line of the stone rampart, have been exposed.
Roman Military Disposition AD 130. South Shields Roman Fort was built around AD 130 by which time the Romans had established substantial infrastructure in the northern region. The fort was directly accessed from a road from Chester-le-Street (Concangis) as well as via the River Tyne.