Britain: Back to barracks in Roman Tyne and Wear

Time and weather have been cruel to much of Britain's Roman past. But at South Shields, there is a wonderful opportunity to look up, not down, at our classical heritage, writes

Guy de la Bedoyere.

Unlike the usual Roman military establishment perched on a bleak hillside, Arbeia Roman fort at South Shields is slap bang in the middle of rows of terraced houses, only yards away from guesthouses and fish and chip shops. Fort Street, Trajan Avenue, Vespasian Street and Roman Road rather give the game away.

This gem of Roman Britain has been exposed for nearly a century, but it's only in the last 20 years that it has really come alive. It's a perfect visit if you (or your children) are tired of crumbling piles of stones. South Shields' magnificent reconstructed Roman gateway impresses everyone who walks through it.

Hadrian's Wall, built in AD120 or so, ran from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. But the lower Tyne was strategically vital. The Britons could duck round the end of the Wall, just as the Germans dodged round the Maginot Line, and cross over. So the Romans built South Shields fort. Sitting on the south bank like a spider, it had a perfect view of the Tyne valley. Long before the Romans arrived, Iron Age farmers lived here. Their roundhouse, which had burned down around about 250BC, was found underneath the much later Roman parade ground.

That parade ground probably belonged to a fort built around the time of Hadrian's Wall - but the early fort has not been found, because in the AD160s a new stone fort was built on top of it.

The Romans loved standard specifications. And South Shields was a standard fort: playing-card outline, four gates, headquarters building, barracks, granaries and latrines. This is one of the few places in Britain where you can see almost the whole layout.

The fort had a thriving civilian settlement outside its walls. Some of the tombstones on display in the museum tell us about the cosmopolitan population. Regina, for one, was a member of the Catuvellauni, a tribe from the Hertfordshire area. She had been a slave, but was freed by her master, Barates. He was from Palmyra, in Syria, and commissioned Regina's magnificent tombstone when she died at the age of 30. He added a line in his own Palmyrene language, saying "Regina, freedwoman of Barates, alas!"

It's a touching portrayal of a woman who was clearly mourned. So, too, was the 20-year-old freedman Victor, from Mauretania in north-west Africa, "devotedly conducted" to his grave by his former master Numerianus, a trooper in the First Ala of Asturians (a cavalry regiment from north-western Spain); this is thought by some to be evidence of a homosexual relationship. Both tombstones are in the form of architectural frames, resembling buildings in Syria. They were probably carved by the same sculptor, who may have come from there.

South Shields was later adapted as a storehouse for the Emperor Septimius Severus (AD193-211) who came here early in the third century to fight a war. Severus, so the story goes, was fed up with his sons, Caracalla and Geta, spending their time on the razzle in Rome. Fighting in northern Britain would soon toughen them up. As the Caledonians were causing trouble as usual, there was a good excuse for a war.

At South Shields all the usual buildings were cleared away and about 22 new granaries erected. The garrison was confined to barracks in a fort extension. Severus invaded Caledonia, but his plans fell apart. He died in York in AD211. Caracalla abandoned the campaign, and murdered his brother the next year.

Caracalla met his own bloody end in AD217, but it wasn't the end of South Shields. It remained a stores base, and in AD222 an aqueduct was built to bring water. The inscription recording the event is on display in the museum.

Despite a fire in about AD300, the fort was rebuilt. South Shields became one of the most exotic locations in Britain; the new garrison was a unit of Tigris boatmen. The Roman army had always used provincials with special skills. Navigating the Tyne and bringing up supplies from down south called for experts in moving goods around in small coastal lighters. The boatmen came from the province of Arabia, perhaps the origin of the fort's Roman name, Arbeia "Place of the Arabs", but no one really knows.

The Tigris boatmen's commanding officer had Mediterranean tastes. He built himself a courtyard house with summer and winter dining-rooms, and a bath suite, using a plan similar to that of the houses of Pompeii, which had been destroyed by Vesuvius about 300 years earlier.

This part of the fort is being excavated at the moment, and earlier this year a Roman suit of armour was unearthed in the area, an extraordinarily rare find. The many other finds on display in the excellent museum include cameos and other jewellery, some made of jet. The jet came from near Whitby, and waste found there makes it likely that this was a centre of the jet industry.

Walking round South Shields today, you can't fail to be struck by the imposing west gate. It's a replica, built in 1986, and is best seen from outside the site, but you can go inside and climb up into the towers. It gives a superb idea of the original appearance of a massive, twin-portalled Roman military gateway.

Once Britain stopped being a Roman province after AD410, the history of South Shields becomes a mystery, but the fort must have had a use. The area became the Saxon kingdom of Deira. One legend is that King Oswin, who died in AD651, was born at Caer Urfa. Urfa just may be a corruption of Arbeia.

South Shields is a marvellous place to take children, especially those studying the Romans at school. The local authority could make a better job of signposting it, because all too many people miss out on South Shields when they visit Hadrian's Wall. And if it's a bit on the nippy side, where else can you walk out of a Roman fort and buy fish and chips, guaranteed to warm the cockles of the heart of the coldest Tigris boatman?

Arbeia Roman Fort (0191 454 4093) is open Mon-Sat 10am-4pm, entrance to museum and grounds free, except for the Time Quest gallery: adults pounds 1, children 50p. Access by road is via the A185/A194 from Gateshead. Approaching South Shields up the A194, watch for a roundabout exit to the B1303 (Station Road, becoming River Drive) that skirts round the north of South Shields by the Tyne and turn right down Baring Street. The fort is on your left. Access by Metro (South Shields Station) involves a 15- 20-minute walk: head east down King Street and carry on into Ocean Road, take the first left turn after the roundabout (Baring Street) and walk north for half a mile to the museum.

Guy de la Bedoyere is the presenter of Radio 4's series 'The Romans in Britain', on Saturdays at 4pm.

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