Roman South Shields: Arbeia Place of the Arabs
In Roman times South Shields was called Arbeia and was a fort of some considerable importance as not only did it guard the entrance to the Tyne but it protected a small Roman port at the mouth of the river.
The port and fort acted as a supply base for garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. Supplies were brought in from across the North Sea and along the eastern coast of Britain. It is probable that there were regular Roman shipments across the Tyne to Segedunum (Wallsend) at the eastern terminus of Hadrian’s Wall.
A number of changes and major alterations were made to the fort over the centuries according to particular needs at different times. It is known that several massive granaries – useful for a military campaign – were later converted to barracks. The port may have played host to a Roman fleet and in 208AD the Emperor Severus used South Shields as the base for his campaigns in Caledonia.
Interestingly the name ‘Arbeia’ is thought to mean ‘Place of the Arabs’ and probably relates to the ethnic-regional name ‘Arbaye’, a region that lay between the River Tigris (in what is now Iraq) and Nisibis (Nusaybin), a city now in Turkey close to the border with Syria. A company of skilled Arab bargemen from the River Tigris are known to have worked on the Tyne at Arbeia in the fourth century and perhaps the early fifth century. They were the last-known Roman inhabitants at South Shields. If Arbeia is named from these inhabitants then South Shields must have had an earlier Roman name before their arrival but it is not recorded.
Intriguingly, the Arabs at Arbeia came from the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire and found themselves working in the far north-western corner of that same Empire, so their skills must have been in high demand. One of their number is known to have married a British woman called Regina, whose tombstone can be seen in the Arbeia museum. She was not local to the area but belonged to the Catevellauni tribe who lived north of London. Regina’s husband was called Barates whose home town was Palmyra in what is now Syria. She had formerly been his slave.
Next to the tombstone of Regina in the museum is another commemorating the life of Victor, a Moor from North Africa, who like Regina, had formerly been a slave. It is thought Victor, who was 20 years old when he died, was passing through Arbeia on his way to join his compatriots at Benwell. The design of the two tombstones suggests they were both sculptured by Syrian craftsmen.
As well as the shipping links along the Tyne and coastal areas, Arbeia was linked to the Roman road network via the Wrekendyke (or Leam Lane) which joined the Roman Road from Chester-le-Street somewhere west of present day Wrekenton.
Wrekendyke is not a Roman name it was called this in later times. A Durham historian writing in the 1820s noted that the road was then also known as the ‘Raking Dyke’ which may have been a reference to the raked or angled nature of the road as an offshoot of the road from Chester-le-Street to Newcastle.
The fort of Arbeia has a splendid location situated on the top of a hill which is today called the Lawe (an Anglo-Saxon word for a hill – usually with an ancient site on the summit). The remains of the fort layout, from where there would have been commanding views of the Tyne, are very impressive.
The extensive Roman remains are complemented by some of the biggest and finest reconstructions at a Roman fort in Britain including a barrack block and a gatehouse. The reconstructions were completed in the 1980s and were built using Roman stones recovered from various sites in the neighbourhood. The fort is one the best preserved and extensively excavated Roman sites in Britain. In addition to the fort’s military occupation it is known that there was also an extensive Roman civilian settlement.
Saxon Shields: St Hilda’s monastery?
Following the departure of the Romans, around 400AD, the area that is now South Shields is thought to have been called ‘Caer Urfe’, a name incorporating a Welsh or Ancient British word for a fort.
The site of Caer Urfe has been identified as the Lawe at South Shields which suggests that Arbeia continued to be a place of importance inhabited by the Romanised Britons in the Dark Age decades that followed the end of Roman rule. If so, such a site commanding a prominent place at the mouth of the Tyne would also have become a focus of interest for the Anglo-Saxons during their invasion and later following their defeat of the Britons. The Anglo-Saxons began to settle sometime around 500-600AD.
According to the Tudor antiquarian, John Leland, who noted a tradition remembered at Tynemouth monastery, an Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria called Oswin (reigned 644-651AD) was born in the castle or ‘Burgh’ at the top of Caer Urfe. Oswin was murdered by the followers of his rival, Oswiu at Gilling in Yorkshire in 651AD and was said to have been buried at Tynemouth Priory (across the river from South Shields) where he was later venerated as a saint.
During Oswin’s reign a monastery or convent was founded by St Hilda (more properly known as St Hild) around 648AD on land granted by the king. The land was described by the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede as being on the north bank of the River Wear.
Bede is vague about the actual location of the monastery and it is thought it may have been nearer to the Tyne than the Wear. Bede seems to have considered the land between the two rivers as one place.
If St. Hilda’s monastery was nearer to the Tyne, South Shields would seem a likely location. The town’s historic parish church is dedicated to St Hilda and has medieval roots. It is possible that the monastery stood on the site of this later church.
St Hilda was a member of the Northumbrian Royal family and moved on from her mysteriously located monastery to become Abbess of Hartlepool in 649AD. She then subsequently moved even further down the coast to establish a monastery at Whitby in 657AD.
In the 1660s the Masters and Mariners of Whitby added their own gallery to the church of St Hilda at South Shields. Whitby sailors were no strangers to the Tyne but this was probably a recognition of the link that the two places have through St Hilda.