Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields - 2010
Archaeological excavation, funded by Earthwatch Institute
Work began in the area lying just outside the south west corner of the fort in 2009, with the aim of examining the civilian settlement (vicus) that surrounded the fort.
Beneath the rubble and foundations of the former late-nineteenth-century houses, the excavation revealed an unexpected deposit of sand, gravel, chalk and flint nodules, 1.2m deep, which had been used to stabilise empty cargo ships arriving in the Tyne from the Thames to collect coal for London. Such material, termed ship’s ballast, was known to have been moved from Low Dock to what is now North Marine Park during the early 1820s. It was conveyed by means of a waggonway, which we now believe to lie beneath the present Fort Street. The excavated ballast material formed an embankment on which the waggonway ran.
A feature seen to the north of the ballast embankment was wrongly thought, during the 2009 season, to have been the remains of the waggonway. However, initial work this year, alongside re-examination of the map evidence, has confirmed that the remains are that of a rope walk. This was a line of large posts that held spindles along which individual cords of rope ran before they were twisted into huge ropes for sailing ships. A typical ship’s rope could be as long as 1,000 feet (305m), and the rope walk is known to have ran from a rope manufactory once located on Mile End Road towards this part of the site. Historical sources state that there were once seven such rope manufacturers in South Shields, though we know very little about them.
The ballast and remains of the rope walk had been laid immediately above the nineteenth-century ground surface, which consisted of a black plough soil. This soil, 0.4m deep, lies immediately above the Roman levels. Towards the end of the 2009 season, the uppermost level of the Roman remains became visible after careful trowelling, revealing part of the outlines of at least one or possibly two halves of Roman civilian buildings. These buildings are just over 9m long and lie 5.5m apart. They appear to face the line of modern Baring Street, beneath which probably lies a previously-undetected Roman road leading away from the fort’s west gate. To the south of the northern-most building lies rubble stone, probably representing the collapse of its walls, and beneath this could be seen the remains of broken red sandstone roofing slates. The southern-most building was overlain by black ash containing burnt daub, which strongly suggests that this building had been destroyed by fire, possibly as a means of demolition. Finds recovered so far have mainly been from the plough soil, which contained a mixture of Roman and post-medieval pottery and coins.
This year we are examining these Roman buildings more closely and hope to find evidence of what eventually happened to the vicus. We have also encountered an unexpected infilled ditch. This may be part of a late defence of the fort, though we should know more when the excavation of this feature is complete.
TWM Archaeology staff are being assisted by volunteers and members of the Earthwatch Institute, which sponsors the research and sends volunteers from all over the globe to participate in the excavation work.