Laying bare the secrets of the past
Built by the Romans around CE(Common Era)160, Arbeia Fort guarded the mouth of the River Tyne against invasion for several hundred years. The fort played an essential role in the mighty frontier system of Hadrian's Wall, which stretched the entire 80 Roman miles across the British Isles, separating Scotland and England.
It was originally built to house a garrison (a body of troops), but grew into a military supply port for the 17 forts along the wall and a civilian settlement (or vicus). The fort remained in use until at least the early fifth century. Today, the excavated remains and reconstruction of original buildings offer a unique insight into life in Roman Britain. Recognized for its cultural importance, the Hadrian's Wall site was one of the first designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom.
The arrival of Earthwatch
The Earthwatch project Ancient Britain: Romans on the Tyne, led by Professor Paul Bidwell, is a UK based cultural heritage project focusing on discovering the secrets of this area and its history. Professor Bidwell is the Head of Archaeology at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and provides a wealth of knowledge while leading a skilled and experienced research team for Earthwatch.
Since 1993 the Earthwatch project has been carrying out a long-term large scale excavation of Arbeia, located at South Shields, northeast England, and producing a more detailed picture of a Roman military supply base than has ever been gained before. Archaeological remains are often as endangered and threatened as the natural environment, and World Heritage Sites particularly require careful conservation and management to ensure they will be available for future generations. No-one knows for certain how much of Hadrian's Wall has survived, and archaeological research on the wall and its forts is very much in its infancy. The Earthwatch project aims to provide a secure basis of knowledge to inform future plans for the management and conservation of this World Heritage site.
Professor Bidwell and his team are building a solid knowledge base of the Arbeia area with objectives to:
- Understand the transition from Iron Age to Roman society;
- Locate, date, and understand the origins of the Roman site;
- Form a complete plan of the Roman fort and supply-base in its various periods;
- Balance knowledge of the fort with improved knowledge of the area outside it;
- Enhance understanding of the economy and systems of supply of the frontier zone, and how these fitted into the context of the Roman Empire.
The area was not just occupied by the Romans, however, and excavations have resulted in the discovery of a multi-period prehistoric site beneath the east quadrant of the Roman fort, including a mid-Iron Age roundhouse in an extraordinary state of preservation. The area in question was under cultivation at the beginning of the Roman period, so the whereabouts of the immediately pre-Roman settlement nucleus is unknown and we have no knowledge of how it was affected by the arrival of the army. Buildings, roads, and a possible parade ground from around CE160 have also been found beneath the stone fort.
The project continues to help us to understand the many impacts of imperial Rome on northeast England's indigenous Iron Age society, based on agriculture, and why the succeeding Roman community developed and itself became unsustainable. The scientists' excavations are slowly chipping away at this question. A major recent discovery has been a pair of barrack blocks in which cavalrymen and their horses were evidently accommodated in the same buildings. This has revolutionized our view of how the Roman cavalry was housed, and explains why it has been so difficult to recognize any stables.
Findings about the Roman society of Arbeia
Much has been learned about the vicus, including the discovery that traders and shopkeepers were from other parts of the Roman Empire, and not from the indigenous rural population. Environmental evidence in the form of plant remains, seeds and grains, contributes to our knowledge of the impact of the Roman army upon the local agricultural economy. The last four years of excavation have also shown how the materials were gathered, clay quarried, turfs collected and stones laboriously cut into shape to build the defenses and internal buildings of the fort.
Analysis of the results from the excavation of the vicus has revealed exciting evidence that the Roman settlement is likely to still exist beneath the modern town of South Shields. The highlight of the 2009 field season was the excitement of opening up a brand new area of exploration within the project site, and the scientists were able to quickly confirm that archaeological remains relating to the civilian settlement were present there. Completely covered by modern housing, most of this part of the settlement is inaccessible, and poorly understood compared to the fort interior. Research at this new site is vital to enable an evaluation of the level of archaeological impact on the Roman remains from new building developments in the area.
All research attempts to locate, date and understand the origins of the first Roman presence at the site have provided no indications so far. However, a tantalizing anomaly in the form of subsidence along the south-western side of the newly excavated area suggests the possible existence of an earlier ditch existing here. Further investigation in the coming field season will determine whether or not this is indeed the case.
The team's work also re-acquaints residents with an important aspect of their heritage and attracts visitors to an area which has suffered economic losses from depleted industry and is therefore keen to promote tourism. The research site has been the focus of many research and vocational training schemes for students, provides educational resources for local schools, and runs employment or training programs for the unemployed.
The scientists are also addressing the rising need for a museum to be built on the site, to house and preserve findings from the project, and provide a base for outreach and education activities. Recent feasibility studies were unable to locate a suitable area outside the boundary of the present fort park, so new excavation this year evaluated the level of archaeological impact from any proposed new building to determine the suitability of the area for this. The search for a suitable site for the museum continues.
The results of the excavations have attracted international attention among professional archaeologists, and those concerned with the presentation and display of heritage sites. In 2009, the scientists won an award for Best Archaeological Research Project at the Current Archaeology Awards.
Join the Ancient Britain: Romans on the Tyne expedition as a volunteer.
Report by Debbie Winton and Ria Miller.