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

SKUETENDERS – documentary about The Lawe, South Shields.

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Over 7 years from 2009-16 I produced over 20 documentaries around South Tyneside. I never received any funding to produce the films, each DVD was sold to help fund the next one. ‘Little Ireland’ sold well and was sent to ex-pat’s around Europe, Canada and Australia but ‘Skuetenders’ was the most successful. I’ve lost count the number of copies sold, it’ll be around 800. 

The length of any programme can differ from very short adverts to full length films of 100 minutes plus. It depends on the story that you are telling. An interesting documentary on tv can be turned into just a number of soundbites. They can tell the story but rush over some really good bits with the interviewee talking for less than 10 seconds. I’ve watched a few.

When I had the idea to make a documentary around the Lawe Top in South Shields I didn’t want it to be full of soundbites. I wanted the interviewee’s to have enough time to tell their story. Not only was it important what they had to say but it was all in the Geordie accent. The idea was to wander around The Lawe Top collecting stories from residents with a narrator explaining the history of this oldest part of South Shields, it even has a Roman fort.  

As with all documentaries made over the 7 years, arrangements were made with Hildred Whale at the South Shields Heritage Club to screen the film in the Library. Downstairs had a great theatre with over 100+ raked seats, a stage, large screen, video projector hanging from the ceiling and projection room with VHS and DVD players. It also had an audio mixing desk and mic’s for invited speakers. A great set up.

A date for the first screening on 2pm 19th October 2011 was arranged and that quickly sold out. A later show at 7pm was added. That sold out. Another date was added. Same again, a quick sell out. This was repeated until the film was shown six times. Further evidence of a thirst that people have to see and hear stories from their home town. The documentary had a running time of 70 minutes and was repeated in the next documentary ‘Tyne Dock Borders’. Another area of the town with a long history. 

To view the edited film go to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel and subscribe to watch more.

Gary Alikivi August 2018.