Excavation and desk-based research
To find more about life in the civilian settlement outside Arbeia fort

From 2012 to 2016 there will be a community excavation at Arbeia in the civilian settlement outside the fort

South Shields Roman Fort – the Arbeia of the Romans – is the site of a Roman fort and civilian settlement and seaport of the first to fourth centuries AD. The site operated as a supply base for Hadrian's Wall. The existence of the Roman site has been known since the 1600s; the first excavations took place in 1875. By the 1970s, Victorian buildings which had encumbered the site had reached the end of their useful life and been removed, leaving nearly the whole site available for conservation and research.

The site is owned by the local authority (now South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council) and is now curated by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, which has been responsible for a continuous programme of research since 1983, as well as reconstructing a selection of Roman buildings. The Earthwatch Institute has supported the research side of the project since 1993. 2008 saw the final completion of a twenty-year campaign of excavation on an area inside the fort, and the decision was taken to address our relative ignorance of the Roman civilian settlement by opening a new excavation area outside its western corner. Already the new area has produced some surprising and contrasting results, with a higher level of remains and finds than expected.

The Arbeia activities consist of both fieldwork and desk-based, indoor post-excavation work, the former only taking place in the summer months, the latter all year round.

Results so far

Community archaeology at Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields, in 2013-16 is concentrating on an area immediately outside the fort wall, at the south-west corner of the visible stone fort.

Earthwatch volunteers have worked closely with members of the local community in South Shields to find out what life was like in the Roman civilian settlement.

Up against the fort wall the excavation has found defensive ditches, and the fallen fabric from the fort wall which had collapsed in post-Roman times.  One eagle-eyed volunteer spotted a finely carved Roman altar which had been re-used in the fort wall at a late period: this is now displayed in the site museum.

Further out, beyond the defensive ditches, buildings and activities relating to the civilian settlement or vicus which flourished outside the fort walls in the third century AD have been found. During the main third-century phase this area was occupied by metalworking hollows for gold- and silversmiths. The metalworking activity was probably associated with a nearby timber building represented by a timber lined storage pit or cellar also cut into the clay dump.  Coins and pottery from the metalworking hollows were of third century date.

The demolition fill of the metalworking hollows contained pottery dated to after AD 250, yet was stratigraphically overlain by  a road, resurfaced many times, and by a new stone building of the usual commercial or industrial type found in Roman fort civil settlements. This is important because with a few exceptions fort civilian settlements or vici in north Britain were abandoned or drastically reduced in size after c. AD 270, yet the final phase in this part of the vicus at South Shields must have been built in the late-third century or even in the early 300s.  South Shields emerges as one of a handful of places that because of their importance maintained an urban function as a market centre as well as having a fort and a military garrison.  This is probably explained by its role as the major seaport at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The 2014 season of excavation has thrown up some stunning finds and one or two surprises. The excavation team was tasked with removing the thick clay dump in which the third century remains discussed above, were cut. On removal the dump was found to cover a long, stone lined channel that appeared to run from the SW corner of the Severan supply-fort towards the remains of vicus buildings to the east, beneath the modern primary school. This channel was a drain or possibly an aqueduct comprised of a long, narrow gully or ditch lined with many courses of flat stones, and originally capped with slabs or flag stones (since robbed). On further examination the west end of the the channel had been cut off and the rest filled in when the garrison fort was enlarged during the period of Septimius Severus in c. AD 208. The backfill produced a wonderfully crafted stone female head. The head is only 8 cm high but would have formed part of a Tutela​ - a portable representation of a local protective deity. This example wears a mural crown and flecks of paint can still be seen on her lips and face. The head will be kept in the Arbeia museum when conservation work is finished. The backfill also produced a lovely early bronze coin and a complete bowl of Nene Valley ware resplendent in scale effect decoration.

Exploratory trenches through these levels revealed some earlier Roman occupation material, beneath which were the ploughmarks of pre-Roman agricultural activity on the site.

During the 2016 season, we hope to further explore the clay dumps and the underlying earlier deposits in order to understand the history of the site.