Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort

Museum and Roman Site in South Shields

Arbeia South Shields
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Jan Hazevoet

Arbeia was a large Roman fort located South Shields, Tyne & Wear, England, now ruined, and which has been partially reconstructed.

In Roman times South Shields was called Arbeia and was a fort of some considerable importance as not only did it guard the entrance to the Tyne but it protected a small Roman port at the mouth of the river.

It was first excavated in the 1870s and all modern buildings on the site were cleared in the 1970s. It is managed by Tyne and Wear Museums as Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum.

Built in AD160, this important site would have stood guard at the mouth of the River Tyne controlling the main port of entry to the Roman Empire in Britain. Originally built as a cavalry fort, it was in use for around 300 years, secured and controlled one of the most important ports in Roman Britain and later played an important role in supplying the border troops in the north of the island.

Some of the fort’s buildings were restored or rebuilt in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These include the west gate, the late antique commandant’s house and a team barrack, which were rebuilt on the original foundations.

Early History of the Fort

The fort area has been inhabited since the Mesolithic (8300 BC). During the excavations, weapons and tools made of flint stone, which were probably made by Stone Age hunters, came to light. From the Neolithic (3500–1800 BC) settled farmers settled here who made ceramics and kept pets.

AD129 – Hadrianic Cavalry Fort / Severan Supply Base

Originally built during the reign of Hadrian c.AD129, Arbeia was the easternmost garrison fort of Hadrian’s Wall, guarding a small seaport on the south bank of the Tyne Estuary near its outlet into the North Sea at South Shields. The first two units stationed here were both auxiliary cavalry ‘wings’, each containing around five-hundred troopers.

The first verifiable Roman buildings date from the year 125 AD and probably belonged to the civil settlement or vicus that surrounded the fort in an arc from east to west.

AD208 – Arbeia Auxiliary Infantry Cohort and Replenishment  Base

In AD208 the emperor Septimius Severus launched a series of campaigns against the troublesome Caledonian tribes, and the fort at Arbeia underwent a radical change in its usage. The attendant cavalry ala was withdrawn for the emperor’s campigns through the Scottish highlands, to be replaced at South Shields by an auxiliary infantry cohort.

Between 205 and 207, a. For the remaining crew, four new barracks (two double and two single barracks, 12 x 40 m) were built in the Praetentura (southern section). The principia were demolished between 286 and 318 and also replaced by warehouses, while the barracks were renovated.

This change in military function was obviously accompanied by a period of rebuilding, during which the fort was considerably altered:

  1. The principia was rebuilt on the same site but rotated by 180°.
  2. Apart from the double granary which was retained, all the other internal buildings were demolished and replaced by eighteen new Horrea or stone-built granaries.
  3. The original rear of the fort – which was now the front after the rebuilding of the principia – was extended by about one-hundred and fifty feet (45m).
  4. Four new barrack-blocks (two double and two single) were built in the new praetentura.

Arbeia Declined AD300

The fort appears to have been temporarily abandoned towards the end of the third century, and not re-used until the end of the fourth, when Arbeia seems again to have been put to use as a storehouse, with its contents being shipped periodically inland along the course of the River Tyne and its tributaries.

Arbeia Abandoned AD400

The fort was finally abandoned c.AD400, pretty much about the same time as emperor Honorius informed the people of Britain that they must look to their own defense, and the Romans withdrew from the island never to return.

Arbeia – ‘The Place of the Arabs’

The earliest reference to the Roman fort at South Shields occurs in the Notitia Dignitatum of the 4th/5th century, where the garisson fort Arbeia is listed between the entries for Verbeia (Ilkley, West Yorkshire) and an unknown station named DictiumArbeia is thought to be a Latinised form of a name originally from Aramaic – the native language of the last attested unit stationed at the fort – meaning ‘the Place of the Arabs’.

The sixteenth-century antiquary, John Leland, gives the name as Caer Urfa, which appears to be a simple corruption of the earlier Roman name, prefixed by Caer, a Welsh word meaning ‘a fortified place’ which is typical of the early Saxon era. The modern name is first recorded in 1235 as Scheles, which is a Middle English term for a group of makeshift huts or shelters, in this case probably used by fishermen; there were evidently more of these temporary dwellings on the opposite bank of the Tyne at North Shields.

The Garrison Units of Arbeia

Legio Sextae Victrix Pia Fidelis
The Sixth Victorious Legion Loyal and Faithful

There are several inscriptions attesting the Sixth Legion was at South Shields. A substantial stone-built fort such as that at Arbeia would have required specialized engineering skills which were only available in the highly-trained soldiers in the Roman legions, and not possessed by the auxiliary units which were to garrison the fort. It was the legions, therefore, who were responsible for most of the military building work in the Roman empire, and it is evident that the Sixth legion were responsible for perhaps all of the building work at Arbeia.

LEG VI “The Sixth Legion (built this)” [RIB number=”1061″][/RIB]

Among the inscriptions found here is an altar to an unknown god dedicated by a centurion of the Sixth (vide supra), which suggests that at least one century of the legion was stationed here for some time, most likely in temporary accommodation whilst construction work at the fort was under way.

Julius Verax, centurion of the Sixth Legion [dedicates this].” [RIB number=”1057″]altarstone[/RIB]

Ala Primae Pannoniorum Sabiniana
The First Wing of Sabinus’s Pannonians

The first unit to be stationed here was Ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana, a squadron of auxiliary cavalry containing five-hundred horsemen recruited from among the Pannonian tribes of modern Hungary. They were removed to Onnum (Halton Chesters, Northumberland) sometime before the third century.

Ala Primae Hispanorum Asturum
The First Wing of Asturian Spaniards

The second unit to be stationed here was another cavalry regiment Ala I Hispanorum Asturum, originally from the Astures tribe of north-western Spain, and probably numbered among the auxilia which accompanied emperor Claudius during the British invasion of AD43. They are attested in stone on a single tombstone (vide supra).

“To the spirits of the departed and Victor, of the Moorish nation, twenty years old, freedman of Numerianus, a trooper of the First Wing of Asturians, who most devotedly conducted [his burial].”
[RIB number=”1064″]tombstone[/RIB]

Cohors Quintae Gallorum
The Fifth Cohort of Gauls

The original cavalry units were replaced in the Severan period by a one-thousand strong infantry unit Cohors V Gallorum, who were possibly withdrawn from Cramond on the Forth. The presence of this Gallic infantry unit at South Shields is attested in a dedicatory inscription dated to AD222, which celebrates the completion of the new fort aqueduct, on an altarstone to an unidentified deity, also on a dedicatory inscription discovered in 1985.

As the normal requirement for a military cohort was ten barrack-blocks, it would appear that the Fifth Cohort of Gauls was under-strength by almost half, perhaps four centuriae had been retained as a care taking force at the Cramond fort. An alternate theory is that the unit was employed to accompany the supply caravans between the two forts – whether they traveled by road or sea – and quarters had been allocated in both establishments for use by the infantrymen at either end of the journey.

“The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus [Alexander] Pius Felix Augustus, grandson of the deified Severus, son of the deified Antoninus the Great, Supreme Pontiff, with tribunician power, Father of his Country, Consul, brought this water supply for the use of the soldiers of the Fifth Cohort of Gauls, under the direction of Marius Valerianus, his Legate with pro-praetorian power.”
[RIB number=”1060″] dedicatory inscription from the Arbeia aqueduct; dated: AD222[/RIB]

Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium
The Company of Bargemen from the Tigris

The last Roman military unit attested at South Shields were the Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium, an irregular unit of barge-men from the River Tigris in the Middle-East; the name of the unit is recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum. It would appear that the wife of one of these men is recorded on a tombstone recovered from South Shields.

“To the spirits of the departed (and to) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra (set this up). Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.” [RIB number=”1065″][/RIB]

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Visiting Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort



Address: Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort Baring St South Shields NE33 2BB United Kingdom
Duration: 2 hours

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