WHAT DID THE ROMANS DO FOR US ? in conversation with Alexandra Croom, Keeper of Archaeology at Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort

Alexander Croom at Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields (pic. Alikivi 2022)

By the end of the first century AD, the Roman army was firmly established in the North East. Hadrian had built an 80 mile long wall by AD128, some years later a fort was built on barren land in what became Newcastle and on the coastline overlooking the river Tyne a fort was built in South Shields.

Living a stone’s throw away I’ve been interested in the Roman fort so I popped over to the museum met Alex Croom and asked ‘What did the Romans do for us ?’

When expanding the Roman empire across the world Emperor Septimius Severus arrived in the UK from Rome and started his Scotland campaign so the South Shields fort was converted into a supply base. He brought over his two sons Caracalla and Geta, we aren’t sure of the reason but it might have been to drag them away from the flesh pots of Rome and learn to be warriors rather than playboys.

After multiple successful military campaigns was Emperor Septimius Severus the first rock star of Rome ? I’m not sure of that (laughs). Sadly in the middle of fighting Septimius died of sickness in York in 211AD. We think his sons left South Shields quickly after his death to get back to Rome as we have an altar which is inscribed To the gods the Preservers the unit at Lugudunum paid its vow for their safe return.

What attracted you to archaeology ? I love archaeology and finding out how people lived many years ago, the Greeks and Romans have a lot in common but it’s the Romans I’m more fascinated with.

I’m originally from Berkshire and have worked at South Shields Roman Fort for over 30 odd years now. When I finished studying at Newcastle University I came here and started work as a trainee in 1986.

It was an exciting time as a lot was going on with the reconstruction of the West Gate. South Shields is also unique in the Roman Empire as the only supply base that’s been excavated.

Why is there a fort in South Shields ? Forty years after Hadrian’s Wall was built a stone fort at South Shields was positioned on the Lawe Top. They would look out to check who’s coming into the North Sea and river Tyne thus making it difficult to get past. Directly across river is North Shields, there is no evidence of a fort there but you never know.

Roman Fort with surrounding houses and school (bottom of pic) being demolished in 1966 at the Lawe Top next to the river Tyne.

Today the Roman Fort is surrounded by a modern school and housing are there plans to reveal more of the remains ? There is only one row of houses left that are built on remains, they are near the East Gate, but there is plenty of unexcavated areas inside the fort that we can work on. Of course outside the fort there are all the other houses built over the civilian settlement, temple, baths, cemetery and training ground.

After the Romans left, the area was open fields until 1875, the Victorians knew there were Roman remains here as pottery, tile and coins were found during ploughing, and there were various bits thrown under hedgerows.

They wanted to dig the fort up because they thought it was going to be lost for ever when housing was built over it. After the dig mounds of soil was placed on top so it preserved the remains, a Roman Remains Park was set up in the 1880’s.

From the 1900’s the Lawe Top was built up by the Victorians, rows of housing, churches and a school were built in the area, after a number of years some houses were demolished in 1966.

As houses were being demolished the remains of the North gate were exposed with a lot of stones surviving, by 1977 the Victorian school was ready to be demolished and the south east corner of the fort excavated.

You never know how much there is until you dig down to the Roman layers, they would have been surprised to see how much was there.

Victorian school ready to be demolished in 1977 with the Roman fort south west corner being excavated.

The curve on the corners of the fort are original, Roman forts always had curved corners although the buildings inside had 90 degree corners. They may have been built that way for the watchtowers which were two to three stories high and rather similar in size to the reconstructed West Gate, also they were wide enough for soldiers to walk the wall.

I remember in 2005 TV’s Time Team (Tower Blocks & Togas, series 12 episode 12) came in to film a dig and we were in the area of the Lawe Top where the Roman cemetery was. We knew this because we had dug there before and the Victorians had found graves but Time Team only found one bit of human bone. It was so frustrating because we were in the area where the Regina tombstone was found.

What building would you like to find ? I’d like to find the bath house. All forts have a settlement outside with a temple, cemetery, houses and bath house but unfortunately we don’t know where it is.

What object would you like to find ? Any find is a great find on a dig but I would like to find an inscription of the name of the fort. We’ve got an altar here with what we think is the first name but it’s very worn so we would like something to confirm Lugudunum as the original name.

In the third or fourth century the fort was attacked and parts of it were burnt down, it was rebuilt and its new name which remains to this day, Arbeia, means ‘the place of the Arabs’ after the arrival of a unit of Tigris Bargemen.

Reconstructed barracks on the south west corner of Arbeia Roman fort. (pic Alikivi 2022)

What would you like for the future of the Roman Fort ? What we’d really like is a new museum, our existing museum on the Lawe Top was built in the 1950’s and is limited in exhibition space. We’ve had a lot of excavations over the years and there is a lot of objects that we would love to display.

Arbeia, Roman Fort is open from 28 March – 2 October 2022.

Tel: 0191 277 1409 or check the official website

Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort (arbeiaromanfort.org.uk)

Interview by Alikivi  March 2022

ROMAN SHIELDS with Durham author, David Kidd

Now living near Crook, West Durham, David Kidd is a retired mathematics teacher born and brought up in South Shields. During the 1980’s he studied for a part time degree in the History of Modern Art, Design and Film at Newcastle Polytechnic, where he met fellow student and author Jean Alicia Stokes who shared a common interest in local history.

They have produced a new book The People’s Roman Remains Park about the Roman Fort in South Shields.

Roman remains park, the Lawe, South Shields.

Living nearby, I know the impact the fort has on the surrounding area of the Lawe, and its position on the headland looking over to where the River Tyne meets the North Sea. I asked David what inspired you to write the book ?

The Roman Fort is part of my family history. Our first house was in Beacon Street on the Lawe Top although we moved out when I was a toddler. The house was demolished and we were banished to Biddick Hall on the outskirts of town. The fact that we once lived on the site of a Roman Fort became part of our family mythology.

My friend Jean Alicia Stokes was writing a book about Harton Village when she came across a fantastic local history scrapbook by Robert Blair, who had his family home in the village. We both thought the scrapbook deserved a wider audience. Robert Blair was secretary of the Excavation Committee and the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Roman Remains Park. We thought it would be a good idea to write a book about the 1875 excavations and I agreed to help her.

Excavations in 1875.

Did you come across any unusual stories when researching ?

Too many to mention. What stands out is the way researching the book brought to life the people involved. Robert Blair is at the centre of the story but there were many other memorable characters who joined the campaign and contributed to its success, they helped save Roman remains from being destroyed by housing development.

The Reverend Robert Hooppell was the founding headmaster of the South Shields Marine School and Blair’s key ally in the publicity campaign to get public support for the excavations. Hooppell was an outspoken opponent of the contagious diseases act and a controversial but respected figure in the town who later went on to excavate the Roman Fort at Binchester near Bishop Auckland, and ‘discovered’ the Saxon Church at Escomb.

Reverend John Collingwood Bruce the charismatic Newcastle schoolmaster who tutored Robert Stephenson and wrote the first guide to the Roman Wall, was another key supporter of the campaign. Then of course there was the mysterious figure of Regina whose monument was discovered by some workmen digging foundations for an outbuilding to a house in Bath Street in 1878. She was the freedwoman and wife of Barates from distant Palmyra.

Regina who was a member of a British tribe from Southern England is depicted on the monument as a Syrian woman surrounded by the symbols of her status and part of the inscription is in Aramaic, the language of Palmyra. She is a potent icon of the multi-racial, multi-cultural Roman Empire and could also be a symbol for the modern cosmopolitan town of South Shields.

Regina reconstruction.

What did you use for research ?

The research began with Robert Blair’s scrapbook which is held by The Word at South Shields and expanded into an exploration of the artefacts from the 1875 excavation in the collections of Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort and the Great North Museum, Newcastle.

We are very grateful for the support of Tyne and Wear Museums, especially Alex Croom the keeper of archaeology at Arbeia without whose help the book could not have been completed. The excavations were headline news locally and nationally and we were lucky to be able to follow the progress of the campaign and the excavations in local newspapers.

They played a vital role in mobilising public support for the preservation of the Fort, and we hope allowed us to bring the story to life – an archaeological sensation comparable in its impact to the discovery of the ship at Sutton Hoo celebrated in the recent film released on Netflix, The Dig.

In many ways the excavations at South Shields were similar – both were led by an amateur, Robert Blair was a solicitor and in both the quality of the finds shook the archaeological establishment.

Gladiator knife handle.

What are you doing now & have you any projects planned for the future ?

When it is possible, we are planning to have a formal launch for the book and hopefully talks/events/ signings at places associated with the story. The book was intended to raise money for Arbeia with all profits going to the fort and while sales have been good in the circumstances, they are below what we expected due to the pandemic.

Jean is writing a full history of Harton Township, her previous book was a snapshot of the village based topically on the 1901 Census returns. I am in the early stages of planning a historical novel telling the story of a Shields shipping family in the style of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Loving Spirit based on some research I did for Jean’s new book.

Where is the book available ?

At the moment the book is only available from the publishers Harton Village Press (us) at £15 including post and packing and can be ordered by emailing Jean at jastokes@virginmedia.com. 

Now things are opening up it should soon also be available from the Word, Arbeia and South Shields Museum.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  March 2021.