Arbeia, South Shields' Roman Fort's West Gate reconstruction is 30

09 April 2018

The unique Roman reconstructed West Gate at Arbeia, South Shields’ Roman Fort in South Tyneside sees its 30 year anniversary on Friday April 6 2018.

Officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester on 6 April 1988 it was the only reconstructed Roman gateway in the UK erected on its Roman predecessor’s actual remains.

Inspired by Roman reconstructions like the famous 19C Roman fort at Saalburg in Germany, the ambitious reconstruction was the result of years of extensive research and planning.

The research was undertaken by Paul Bidwell OBE, retired head of archaeology at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. He said:

“It’s very satisfying to see the West Gate at Arbeia in South Shields see its 30th anniversary. The reconstructed gate house has become an icon for Roman Britain.

“There are no original gateways left anywhere, and as there are no surviving complete Roman buildings in the country it was a very exciting project and generated a huge amount of publicity at the time. I’m very proud to have been part of it; it gives people a real flavour of what it would have actually been like on that very spot 1,800 years ago.”

Councillor Alan Kerr, deputy leader of South Tyneside Council with responsibility for Culture and Leisure, said:

“It is wonderful to be celebrating 30 years of the reconstructed gateway at Arbeia.

“The Roman fort is a key tourist attraction and a much loved cultural and educational venue giving visitors a fascinating insight into Roman Britain and the Roman occupation in South Tyneside.”

“The impressive West Gate itself is one of the most imposing historical structures in the area and gives a real sense of the size and scale of Roman military architecture.”

Poised on a hill between South Shields centre and the sea, Arbeia was a busy cosmopolitan fort which was the supply base for all the troops and people living along Hadrian’s Wall during the time of the Roman occupation.

Hadrian’s Wall expert archaeologist Nick Hodgson, principal officer of collections and research at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums who has headed up several archaeological digs at Arbeia and across Tyneside said:

Arbeia was an important part of Hadrian’s Wall – it was a large busy settlement and home to 600 soldiers at one point. Some of the most significant finds from Roman Britain were discovered in this area and the West Gate reflects the fort’s status in the recent understanding of military Roman Britain.”

Due to the UK government’s Conserve As Found policy – which vetoes building or adding to archaeological remains - the plan was initially challenged but after a thorough public enquiry the reconstruction was given the go-ahead. One of the reasons cited was that the site was in an urban area and very little of the Roman buildings survived above their foundations.

The stone masons that were employed in 1988 had to be retrained by the team at Arbeia to create the West Gate using Roman techniques. The inner foundations comply with contemporary building guidelines but all the visible parts of the gateway are as authentic as possible.

Arbeia’s other Roman reconstructed buildings created at a later date include the impressive Commanding Officer’s House and soldier’s barrack block, all created on their original foundations.

The fort and museum has just re-opened for the season following the ongoing £280,000 improvements which have so far seen new visitor information, navigational paths and platforms around the fort remains and updated displays of some of the finest objects from Roman Britain in the UK.

A prime spot thanks to natural defences like the sea and River Tyne, providing both   defence and access by water, the site of Arbeia has been home to people in settlements since prehistoric times, for over 10,000 years.

In the galleries visitors can see an intriguing mix of items from over the centuries from before and after Roman rule 1,800 years ago. Syrian and Moorish headstones for beloved freed slaves, early Christian altars, the poignant remains of 5th century murder victims, one of the world’s best preserved Roman ring-mail suits and even luggage tags from the wife of the Roman Emperor Severus.

The tales of Arbeia’s dramatic and often brutal history are explored in the museum and the reconstructed buildings, where visitors can follows the steps of Roman Emperor Severus and his troops, and see where they would have lived.

Arbeia is open seasonally now until 30 September Monday – Friday 10am – 5pm, Saturday 11am – 4pm and Sunday 1pm-4pm and has free entry.