The goal of this Earthwatch project is to provide a strong knowledge base which can inform future plans for the management and conservation of Hadrian’s Wall. South Shields is the only known supply base of its type in the Roman Empire, and work over the last 18 years has contributed to the complete reconstruction of the building’s site plan, as well as various other revelations about Roman society.
Artefact analysis has shown that the soldiers within the Fort, and the traders and shopkeepers located within the vicus, were not from the indigenous rural population but from other parts of the Roman Empire.
In 2009, a new trench was created at the site to examine a part of the settlement which is still almost completely covered by modern housing. Within the uppermost levels of the Roman deposits, the demolished remains of two vicus buildings were observed, proving that walls and interior and exterior surfaces belonging to buildings within the vicus do survive in this area. To the rear of the buildings was an area which could possibly be a rubbish pit or the construction cut for a well and will be examined more in the 2010 season. Absence of evidence of structures suggests that the area between the vicus houses and the Fort’s defensive ditches was perhaps used as garden plots. Military equipment was also recovered, including a broken scabbard runner (a sheath for holding a sword), a fragment of belt fitting, a piece of an elaborate belt-plate, a bell-shaped stud and a bead, indicating that dumping of rubbish from inside the Fort happened close to the defences. Alternatively, as the majority of these finds are made of copper alloy, it may show collection or purchase of pieces from the soldiers for recycling. A range of coins were also found in this trench just outside the Fort, however the absence of 4th Century coins (which have been found inside the Fort walls) offers speculation that the vicus may have been abandoned by the end of the third century.
An extensive deposit of ship’s ballast was discovered to a depth of 1.20m. Immediately below the ballast was an early 19th Century plough soil horizon, 0.4m deep over the top of the Roman horizon. The undulating nature of the plough soil is indicative of cultivation methods from as recent as the Napoleonic era to as far back as the early medieval period (ranging from the 18th to 5th Centuries).
Encountering the ship ballast in the area surrounding the Fort was a surprise as extensive deposits of such depth and quantity have not been encountered before. The ballast was dumped by empty ships returning to the Tyne from London and the Thames estuary and by the 1820s had threatened to engulf the town, so ballast was then transported to the sand dunes to the east of the Fort site (now North Marine Park). It was known that a waggonway had been built specifically for transporting the ballast, and in the 2009 field season, the remains of the waggonway were discovered within the northwest part of the new trench. Its presence here was unexpected, as although this transport line is shown on a map of 1827, previous comparisons with modern mapping equated the line to lying parallel with the southeast side of the Fort. The waggonway consisted of a dry-stone retaining wall, 0.50m high, with a track bed of compacted ballast. No trace of the actual track remained.
2010 findings include several fragments of a pipe-clay figurine of the goddess Minerva and part of a handle from a bronze jug in the shape of a bird’s head. Another exciting find is a lead sealing marked ‘DN’ for ‘dominus noster’ meaning ‘(property) of Our Lord (the Emperor).’ This is a rare type of lead sealing and the only other one known in Great Britain was also found at the project site.
The knowledge gleaned by the research on the project is passed on to conservation officers of the local authority who ensure that building development and intrusive work only takes place after appropriate archaeological mitigation and recording of threatened remains. The results of the excavations have attracted international attention among professional archaeologists, and those concerned with the presentation and display of heritage sites.
Bidwell, P. (2007) Roman Forts in Britain. New edition, Tempus Publishing, Stroud
Bidwell, P. & Hodgson, N. (2009) The Roman Army in Northern England. The Arbeia Society, Kendal
Hodgson, N. (2009) Hadrian’s Wall 1999-2009: A summary of Excavation and Research prepared for The Thirteenth Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, 8-14 August 2009. CWAAS & SANT, Kendal