Lying at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, the fort at South Shields (known as ‘Arbeia’) was the main destination for seaborne supplies to the northern frontier, receiving goods from southern Britain and overseas. The resulting opportunities for trade saw a very extensive civilian settlement spring up outside the fort – a vicus whose remains, while largely built over by later development, survive remarkably well beneath the modern streets. A recent watching brief by Archaeological Research Services recorded buildings lining the road that runs from the fort’s south gate, and in the last few years developer-funded and community projects have brought further elements of the settlement to light once more.
These revelations add welcome new information to our interpretation of South Shields; at the time of the last Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall in 2009, the long-running excavations in the fort interior were reaching completion – work that is now in the process of being written up for publication. Since then, the intervening years have greatly enhanced our understanding of civilian settlement outside the fort walls.
A series of excavations outside the west gate (published by Margaret Snape and others in 2010) showed that the settlement originated in the 120s or a little earlier. This first phase included a timber granary – confirming that the supply of cereals was important at South Shields from its very beginning – and would have been associated with an early fort, which is yet to be discovered but probably stood on the higher ground that lies south of the excavated stone fort which replaced it around AD 160.
Life in the vicus continued after the second fort was built, but while the new fortifications had been constructed from stone, buildings of this material did not appear in the settlement until the early 3rd century. Only fragmentary plans of these have been recovered to-date, but one example seems to have had a veranda and a front room, probably serving as a shop, with a side passage leading to living accommodation at the back of the house. In common with many (but not all) forts in northern Britain, the settlement was at least partly abandoned by c.270, even though the fort itself flourished until the end of the Roman period. After this, its site was divided into small fields using clay banks faced with stone, though one of the wells associated with the settlement continued in use – this proved to be a valuable source of preserved plant remains, including seeds of coriander and celery.
Extending the vicus
In 2009, a further area in the vicus was opened up, lying immediately outside the south-west corner of an extension to the fort that was built to turn it into a supply base under Septimius Severus (c.AD 208). Here, between 2009 and 2017, a remarkable and unexpectedly deep archaeological sequence gradually emerged.
The earliest Roman activity in this area – overlying a pattern of Iron Age ard marks testifying to prehistoric ploughing – was a series of rubbish dumps dating to AD 120-160, perhaps providing yet another pointer to the existence of an undiscovered early fort. This area lay in a natural valley, and at the time of the stone fort’s construction c.AD 160, this depression was filled with clay to support a road running towards the sea cliffs to the east – a road line that persisted into the 4th century. Helpfully, more clay was dumped when the Severan supply base was built, sealing a host of finds from the time of the 2nd-century stone fort’s demolition – including the sculpted head of a female protective deity or tutela, shown wearing a distinctive mural crown (in the shape of a section of town wall).
We can also see the ditches at the south-west corner of the supply base running through this area, as well as – immediately beyond them, in the 3rd-century vicus – the remains of a gold- and silversmith’s workshop, later superseded by a stone building that was itself destroyed by fire. Abutting the southern angle of the visible fort, tumble from the collapsed wall of this structure overlay the fill of a massive ditch. Measuring some 9m wide, this boundary post-dated the latest types of Roman pottery and coins – a fascinating insight into the fort being defended again in the 5th century.
Arbeia or not Arbeia?
We mentioned before that South Shields is traditionally called ‘Arbeia’, but this identification is not as clear- cut as it might seem. An altar found at South Shields bears an inscription marking the safe return to Rome from Britain of the emperors Caracalla and Geta in AD 211. This was found shortly before 1683, and thanks to modern scanning with high-resolution digital cameras, we can now read the name of the dedicators in the worn lettering. This reveals that they were from Lugudunum, which is almost certainly the fort at South Shields – something that raises an interesting problem, because there are good reasons for identifying the fort as Arbeia, ‘the place of the Arabs’, in the later Roman period. It appears that the original name was changed to reflect the origins of the ‘Tigris boatmen’, a Mesopotamian naval unit that was once garrisoned there. Might similar changes elsewhere in Britain explain some of the difficulties in ascribing names known in ancient sources to modern places?
Having discussed the latest insights into South Shields’ past, let us briefly look to its present. In 2018, the Roman fort benefited from a £285,000 project funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, DCMS, the Wolfson Foundation, and others, which has enabled new visitor routes and information panels to be installed, encompassing the results of the recent excavations and explaining the evidence on which new reconstructions have been based. There is also a film playing in the commanding officer’s house, which tells the story of the fort’s discovery and the role that local people have always played in this work, while in the museum the small finds have been comprehensively redisplayed. It is hoped that this phase of improvements can be a stepping stone towards the building of a new visitor centre and museum to replace the present building, opened in 1953, which the collection has now outgrown.
Finding the fort baths
Let us now leave South Shields to focus on its neighbour, Wallsend (Segedunum), which lies four miles to the west. It is the most extensively excavated and published fort on the Wall, thanks to Alan Rushworth and Alex Croom’s monumental publication, in 2016, of the 1975-1984 work by Charles Daniels, along with recent investigations by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. This site has seen no recent excavation in the fort interior, but the WallQuest community archaeology project (funded through Arts Council England) has shed vivid light on its environs.
These finds include the fort’s baths, which did not stand on the site of the impressive reconstruction that can be seen by modern visitors, but were instead rediscovered by WallQuest volunteers in 2014 under a demolished pub some 130m south of the fort. The baths had first been seen and described in 1813, when a coal staithe to the river was being built, but their exact location was subsequently forgotten – until careful research by the modern volunteers pinpointed a likely site and trial trenching revealed the baths to be still intact at a remarkable 4m depth beneath modern street-level.
Excavation followed, confirming that the building originally had a distinctive layout that is peculiar to the Hadrian’s Wall forts but otherwise unparalleled. However, the baths were later completely rebuilt to a different plan, with fewer heated rooms and two projecting apses – remodelling that was probably the result of a drastic landslip. This transformation most likely dates to the early 3rd century, and is mentioned in an inscription found within unstratified layers in the fort in 1998. One more stunning insight into the building’s construction came from analysis of its materials: this has demonstrated that the lime used in the baths’ mortar had been sourced in the central sector of Hadrian’s Wall, some 35 miles away.
The remains of the baths at Segedunum have now been placed on permanent display, complementing the nearby reconstruction – a further addition to the range of Roman structures that can be seen at Wallsend, and a monument to what can be achieved by community archaeology.
It might seem strange that, on Hadrian’s Wall, there has been surprisingly little detailed investigation of the curtain itself, as opposed to the forts, milecastles, and turrets which it connected. At Wallsend, its final length (known as the ‘Branch Wall’) ran down the steep slope from the south-east corner of the fort to the Tyne. Its remains were first recorded in 1903, during preparations in the shipyard for building the famous liner RMS Mauretania, and more recent excavations uncovered a length which (partly because of subsidence) had been rebuilt twice.
The first rebuilding, to a width of 3.2m, included a broad foundation behind the Branch Wall that probably supported a flight of steps leading up to the wall-top. From antiquarian accounts, we know that the Branch Wall ran out into the river, ending in a structure built with large stone blocks. An arched mole would have been necessary to withstand the strong tidal forces of the river, and examples are known to have been built on the coast of Italy to accommodate temples, columns, and arches. At Wallsend, the beginning of the Wall for most travellers to the frontier area by sea, the end of the Branch Wall would have been a fitting site for a monument to Hadrian’s great building project. Have our excavations found the point at which access was gained to an elevated walkway leading to the monument?
A much larger excavation was undertaken at Buddle Street, west of the fort, fully published in a major monograph in 2018. The Wall was constructed of long, roughly rectangular stones which, mixed with some rubble, formed its core as well as its faces. They were laid without mortar, apparently to avoid the effort of transporting lime from a distant source, and exceptionally deep foundations were provided where the Wall crossed a small valley. At this point, its fabric incorporated a distribution system for the aqueduct that ran down the valley and served the baths and other buildings outside the fort.
Flood waters in the valley probably led to the collapse of a section of the Wall more than 50m in length, and most likely also caused the landslip at the baths. The rebuilding that followed in the early 3rd century included defences around the civilian settlement which ran up to the back of the Wall. Two further collapses were followed by more rebuildings, the second reusing stone blocks and architectural fragments from the main west gate of the fort. There seems to have been another rebuilding in the earlier 4th century, but the Wall then stood intact until at least the end of the Roman period.
It was here that the obstacles on the berm, now known to be a widespread feature of both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, were first seen. Further work in this area has allowed a new reconstruction of the original appearance of the Wall, obstacles, and ditch. While work at Wallsend has much to tell us about the people who lived on the Roman frontier, it is also revealing invaluable information about the make-up and maintenance of the Wall itself.
Paul Bidwell retired as Head of Archaeology for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums in 2013 but is still working on the publication of excavations on Hadrian’s Wall and in south-west England. Nick Hodgson works for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and has recently published Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and History at the Limit of Rome’s Empire (2017).