As the summer programme of activities gets into full swing at Arbeia, lifestyle editor Katy Wheeler and photographer Stu Norton pulled on their Gladiator sandals for a refresher on the importance of the Roman Fort, which was once the cornerstone of the Empire’s advances into England.
“You just never know what might be under your feet,” said our guide as we walked in the footsteps of Romans at one of the country’s best-preserved examples of this ancient civilisation.
Tucked away in the residential area of The Lawe Top in South Shields surrounded by Victorian houses and a school, it’s easy to forget about this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but much like the archeologists who’ve found thousands of items of huge historical importance here over the decades, it’s amazing what you can unearth at the site.
Rewind the clock all the way back to 160 AD and the fort stood proud above the River Tyne as a key military garrison and supply base which played a crucial role in coastal defence and in supplying imported goods to the Northern frontier of the mighty Roman Empire.
At its height it would have been home to 420 soldiers from across the Empire and 120 cavalry.
Today, almost two thousand years later, and the Romans’ footprints on the fort are still very much evident, whether it be in a gold ring depicting the goddess Fortuna, found hidden in the wall of a barrack; the skeletal remains of murder victims or the chain mail, only discovered in 1997 which, with its 58,000 links, is regarded as the best-preserved and biggest surviving example of the garment known to archeologists.
From tiny gems to huge structures, the site also features large-scale recreations, regarded as the finest in Britain, built on the original foundations. They include the landmark West Gate, which turned 30 earlier this year. Officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester on April 6 1988 it was the only reconstructed Roman gateway in the UK erected on its Roman predecessor’s actual remains, which required special permission, making it one of many rare archeologically important gems to be found here.
The Commanding Officer’s house, with its recreated rooms and hand-painted frescos, is also an impressive sight and it too features some of the original foundations and floor.
This year Arbeia is hoping to entice even more people through its doors.
Recent capital funding means the site has opened for the 2018 summer season with improved pathways, which are more pram and wheelchair-friendly, a film telling the story of the fort and interpretation trail and special viewing platform.
Victoria Page, the site’s communications officer, says they are hoping more people will come through the gates to appreciate what’s on their doorstep.
“Arbeia literally means place of the Arab,” she explained. “People sometimes forget that the soldiers who came here weren’t all Italian, they would have been from all over the Empire which was vast, meaning that it was a real melting pot of cultures. People talk about multi-culturalism now, but Arbeia was like that 2,000 years ago. People from all over the world came here, to South Shields.”
Not only was the fort once a symbol of the Empire’s strength and culture, it was, for a brief time, the centre of the mighty Roman Empire.
Victoria explained: “The Emperor Septimius Severus visited the fort and wherever the Emperor was that was the centre of the Empire, so for a time the heart of the Roman Empire was in South Shields.”
One of the most important symbols of this site’s rich and multicultural history is The Regina Tombstone.
Regina was a slave who was freed by a rich Syrian merchant who fell in love and married her. When she died he created a Roman-style ornate tombstone in her honour, which has become so significant that the British Museum has a replica.
But the original, in all its regal-like glory, can be seen right here in South Shields as a reminder of just how much the Romans left their mark.
Summer diary dates
•Crafty Romans: August 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 from 11am to 3pm. Free.
Family creative activities inspired by the Romans.
•Arbeia Festival: August 11 from 11am to 4pm. Free.
Battle demos, a heritage market, artisan crafts and historical stalls.
•The Gladiator Gauntlet: August 12 from 11am to 4pm. Free.
Over 18s get to train in the Ludos with the Doctore. Gladiator training, which needs to be pre-booked, is £39, but free to watch.
•Knowing the Romans - hawks and horses: August 18 from 11am to 3pm. Free.
Meet animals that the Romans used day to day with mini chariot rides for kids.