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Arbeia – Introduction to Item 40
Arbeia sits in a residential area in South Shields, a coastal town a few miles from where I live. It was first rediscovered in the 1870s, and the land was built on and used for housing for a century after that. The modern buildings were removed in the 1970s.
I first visited Arbeia with my boyfriend (now husband) on an afternoon out at the beach. I wasn’t even aware it existed, and we arrived half an hour before closing time. Instead of trying to throw us out, one of the volunteers showed us all over the site, proudly taking us up to the watchtower of the West Gate so we could see right across the fort.
The whole place has been lovingly and lavishly restored, making visitors to Arbeia feel like they’ve stepped back 2,000 years in history. From the carefully recreated soldier and commander barracks, to the family dwellings and the stunning tiled entrance court (cloister) with a mosaic garden outside, it’s an impressive sight and a great place to learn more about life for the Romans in the North East.
The History of Arbeia
We learn from the information boards at the site that the fort was built to protect a seaport. The port has never been found, but given the fort’s position on the Lawe, a headland above the mouth of the river, it’s reasonable to assume that it was somewhere just below Arbeia.
The ruins date to around AD160, and the fort was rebuilt twice, each time from stone. An earlier fort, its exact location unknown, stood at approximately the same place and dates back to 40 years before the current structures. It was occupied until the Romans left in the 5th century.
As well as being used as a port, the fort was also a base for the Roman army, with 600 troops being stationed there at one time or another. It was also used as headquarters for the emperor Septimius Severus when he decided to invade Scotland.
It was also home to Mesopotamian boatmen from the Tigris, so the name Arbeia may mean ‘fort of the Arab troops.’ A Spanish cavalry was also based there – the First Asturian. Apparently, it wasn’t unusual for forts to be under the responsibility of squadrons or legions brought in from other parts of the empire.
The fort commander would have lived in a house of his own, along with his family and attendant servants. This one was reconstructed in 2000, and shows a house which was originally built in AD175, after a fire in the fort.
From fragments that survived, those involved in the reconstructions knew that the walls of the house were highly decorative, and roof tiles would have been used. Access to the Commander’s home was controlled by a porter, who only let VIPs through. The house had a summer dining room and a separate, heated one to use in winter.
The décor is based on examples from Europe, while the style of the building is modelled on those seen in Syria and North Africa. Privacy wasn’t really a thing in Roman times, and all of the rooms would have been multi-usage.
The centurion, who was in charge of the soldiers, had his own quarters, although he would have shared it with a slave
and junior officers, or his wife and family if he wasn’t single. The regular soldiers were bunked eight to a room, where they had to store all their equipment and cook their food. They would have used a bucket as a toilet at night, and would have shared beds or slept on mattresses.
There was a latrine available for use during the day, which was built by the defensive wall.
They were constantly flushed by water coming from the fort’s drains, and wooden seats were positioned over the channels which took the waste out of the fort wall and into a ditch. The latrines sound a lot like the famous long drops at Glastonbury festival, but without individual cubicles and with moss for hygiene purposes!
Arbeia is also thought to be the birthplace of King Oswine, who ruled the southern part of Northumbria, known then as Deira. The northern part of the county, Bernicia, was ruled by Oswiu, a relative.
Oswiu decided he wanted to rule the whole of the kingdom but Oswine refused to engage in battle. He went instead to stay with one Earl Humwald, who promptly betrayed him. Oswiu killed Oswine, who was buried at Tynemouth Priory. Oswine had succeeded King Oswald, who installed Aidan at Lindisfarne.
Arbeia boasts the only example of stone-built granaries in Britain. If any others exist, they’ve yet to be discovered. The granaries were constructed in AD160, at the same time as the first fort. Stone supports were used to raise a wooden floor so that the grain and other foods would stay dry.
The building, constructed of limestone, also featured a portico to keep wagons dry when goods were unloaded. It was later demolished to make way for two kilns, which were put up in AD275 to make roof tiles.
When the new granary (horreum) was built, it had stone floor slabs which were supported by low walls so air could circulate below them. The outer walls, one metre thick and strengthened by buttresses, also had ventilation slots to allow more air through. A fireproof stone slate roof and a loading platform completed it.
By AD 208, South Shields had become a key supply base for the area, which necessitated the construction of an additional 23 granaries. However, with the arrival of the boatmen, the buildings were partitioned and turned into barracks to accommodate the new squadron.
My interest in Roman baths comes from my time in York as a teenager. The Roman Baths pub, where I went often with Margaret and Dennis, was built over an actual bathhouse, and it was once possible to peer through the floor of the bar to look down into it. Although that’s since been covered over, you can still visit the tiny museum below. The Romans founded Eboracum, as York was known, in 71AD.
The most famous thermae are in the southern city of Bath, where a temple was constructed early in the days of the occupation of Britain, and the town of Aquae Sulis sprang up around it.
Thermae (from the Greek word for ‘hot’) were common in cities in town across the empire. They were large buildings and used for public bathing. Smaller, sometimes private bathhouses were known as ‘balnae’ (from the Greek ‘balineum’ – ‘bathing place’) were even more common.
Bathhouses were features of forts and private homes, with water coming from a nearby source, as at Segedunum, or
from an aqueduct if in an urban area. Once heated over a fire, the water would be sent to the hot room – the caldarium.
As well as washing, the bathhouses were important as meeting spaces, reading rooms and for socialising. Bathing played a significant part in the ancient cultures of the Egyptians and Greeks too, but it is the Roman examples that tell us the most.
They built five imperial thermae, including Trajan’s Baths and the Baths of Domitian. Many bathhouses were designed round a central garden, with the bathing blocks either within the garden or at the rear of the complex.
As well as club rooms and courts, there were the three large chambers for the caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium, and underground tunnels allowed the slaves to move around unseen. Vaulted roofs were common, with windows built in. Floors and walls were often marble, and doors were liberally covered in gilt.
There was a whole process to be followed at the bathhouse. After undressing in the apodyterium a visitor would be anointed with oil. Next, they performed vigorous exercise and then went to sweat it out in the hot room and steam room (laconicum). In the latter they would have been scraped clean of sweat and oil, before being sent to the warm room. They finished off with a dip in the cold room pool, and more oiling.