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At The Edge of the World
Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum (South Shields)
Member Name: michaelhudson
Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum (South Shields)
Date: 01/11/02, updated on 01/11/02 (228 review reads)
Advantages: Informative, Close to transport links, Free
Situated on windswept high ground near Littlehaven Beach, Arbeia is easily reached from South Shields Metro Station. Exit the station onto King Street, the main shopping thoroughfare in the town, turn right, and continue along Ocean Road past Asda until you reach Baring Street. Turn left here and the fort is just up the hill.
Admission is free, although there is a £1.50 charge for Time Quest (80p for children and concessions). Monday to Saturday opening times are from 10 – 5.30 from Easter to September and 10-4 the rest of the year. Sunday admission is limited to 1-5pm during spring and summer.
Telephone: 0191 456 1369
THE FORT AND EXCAVATIONS
The site is dominated by the impressive full-size reconstruction of the old West Gate. Two red-tiled roofs crown sandstone towers on either side of a central pair of arches. From the top you can survey the surrounding countryside just as a Centurion would have done over 1500 years ago – though the contemporary view includes a half-demolished playground and compact rows of 1940s terraced housing as well as deep defensive ditches, the Tyne and the North Sea. Wallsend, and Hadrian's Wall, is four mil
es away across the dark river. More recent landmarks are also visible, including the faint, hazy shadow of Penshaw Monument, which tops a distant hill, and the gaunt skeleton of Tynemouth Priory poking above the Victorian chimneys at the very mouth of the river.
There are several interesting displays on the lower levels of the gate's interior. Starting at the foot of the heavy wooden staircase, an interesting wall display charts the early Iron and Bronze Age settlements on the site, rising up through the Roman heyday with a scale model of what the fort is supposed to have looked like at its peak. Another scale model of the nearby Segedunum Fort dominates an adjoining room, surrounded by photos of the reconstruction work at Arbeia and other famous Roman gates including the Arch of Constantine, the Porta Nigra in Trier and the Bu Ngem in Libya. More wall displays relate the fort’s decline in during the Dark Age, continuing through the Anglo-Saxon period when stone was quarried from the ruins and South Shields, once the main port of entry to the Roman Empire in Britain, became a seasonal settlement of fishermen's huts. The top floor exhibits feature a display of Roman armour and weaponry as well as a model of Civil War fortifications built to defend the Tyne for the King.
Back on the ground, the excavations start at the foot of the gate and stretch out south and east in the direction of the recently restored barracks and Commanding Officer's House. Small boards beside the open excavations have detailed text and an artist’s impression of what the buildings that once stood here are thought to have looked like. Many of the remains of the 24 granaries appear to be nothing more than stone bordered holes in the ground to the untrained eye, but there are some special areas of interest including the only visible kiln in Roman Britain and the Via Praetoria, the main street inside the fort leading between the granaries and the barracks
to the Princpia (headquarters). The parade ground has discernable dividing lines, which split the ground into four quadrants for drill and military exercises.
In the south-eastern corner, just to the right of the two small columns that still remain from the entrance to the Princpia, the Commanding Officer's House and barracks stand adjacent to each other. The cramped conditions of the latter, which housed forty soldiers in five plain rooms, contrasts with the luxurious heated rooms of the Commanding Officer, whose living quarters boasted a central courtyard with a veranda, an aisled hall, an office, a suite, two centrally heated private apartments, a small set of baths and two dining rooms, one of which was heated for winter use.
TIME QUEST AND THE MUSEUM
To the right of the entrance, Time Quest is an interactive experience affording visitors the opportunity to take part in an archaeological dig, learn Roman weaving, reconstruct animal skeletons, piece together pottery, and try Roman writing and engineering. The museum is a short distance away on the other side of the small gift shop. The two rooms are very small but feature a number of interesting displays and artefacts. To the right of the door 'The Life of a Roman Soldier' exhibition has an extensive collection of jewellery, pottery fragments, coins, armour and weapons as well as translated diaries and implements. Across the small hall is another room containing one of the largest collections of lead seals in the country in addition to a number of paintings by Ronald Embleton detailing life at the fort. Scale models of fort structures sit alongside excavated items such as a large tablet that commemorates the provision of water to the fort by the Emperor Severus Alexander in AD 222. His name was later completely erased following his death and condemnation by the Senate thirteen years later. The Death and Burial Gallery is crowded with burnt tombstones, cracked slabs, ins
cribed altar fragments and decapitated statues. The most striking exhibits are the post-Roman skeletons of two men who were killed by blows to the back of the head and left in the open for animals to gnaw on.
Close to the beach and within easy reach of public transportation, Arbeia makes an interesting part day excursion from Newcastle or Sunderland. With Time Quest to occupy the kids and enough to stimulate adult minds for an hour or so, the fort can also be combined with trips to Segedunum, Tynemouth, South Shields promenade and Bede's World in Jarrow. There’s not enough here to warrant a lengthy drive but it’s definitely something that should be on your itinerary if you’re ever in the area.
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