In the early 4th century, a troop of boatmen were transferred from one end of the Roman Empire to the other. Abandoning the warmth of the River Tigris, they found themselves enjoying the delights of South Shields, a supply fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.
They no doubt noticed a number of changes. One in particular soon impinged on their consciousness: the climate of South Shields is not quite as warm as that on the Tigris. The commandant therefore set about building himself a new house which incorporated a number of heating devices. Furthermore he also decided to emphasise that he was a Roman, and not a barbarian, so he therefore determined to impress the barbaric ‘Britunculi’ with what is perhaps the finest fully excavated example of a commanding officer’s house in Roman Britain, and the best understood classical house plan.
On the North East coast of England lies Arbeia, the Roman fort at South Shields. It lies just beyond the end of Hadrian’s Wall, and served as the supply depot to the Wall. This photo shows the rows of granaries in which supplies were stored, with the recently reconstructed gatehouse beyond.
The house was not at the centre of the fort as is normal, but is tucked away at the south eastern corner – rather a long way away from the headquarters building in the centre of the fort; but then who wants to live on top of the office? Thanks to the excavations directed by Paul Bidwell and Nicholas Hodgson for the Tyne and Wear Museums, it is now possible to conduct a guided tour of the house.
Plan of the Commandants House. Entrance to the left (room 231) with bathhouse adjacent.
The entrance was to the west, through an elaborate aisled hall which might even be called an ‘atrium’, Room 21. In the corner the doorkeeper sat in Room 22, while adjacent in Room 23 was a small heated office where the less important visitors would be interviewed. At the centre of the atrium was a stone-lined pit that may have been a strong-box for the safe-keeping of valuables.We then pass through into the centre courtyard – very Roman in style, though there is a veranda only along two sides. To our left are the private apartments. Rooms 3, 4, 5, and 6 form a suite with doors leading through one to the other: the two end rooms 5 and 6 had central heating.Then at the far end of the courtyard was the piece de resistance – the triclinium or dining room (room 7). This was where the commander dined with his guests: at the far end, the classical arrangement of couches set around three sides were marked out by flagstones. It shows how even in the 4th century the commander of the Tigris boatmen was determined to maintain proper civilised Roman standards and to recline and loll about at his meals and not do as barbarians do, and sit up straight.
There was however one little problem: it was unheated, and in the winter it became a little cold (and probably in spring and autumn too). They therefore built a more intimate winter dining room adjacent in Room 12 which was smaller, but properly heated. The rooms between the two, 8 9 and 11 were presumably the kitchens – note the back door leading out to the intervallum street. Continuing round, Room 13 was a store room from which the hypocaust was fired: there was also a latrine in the corner. Adjacent, room 14 had a rough metalled floor, and drains, and was probably therefore a stable. Then coming back to the west end of the house there was a small but luxurious set of baths set adjacent to the entrance. Here at the far extremity of the Roman Empire the Tigris boatmen could behave like proper Roman gentlemen.
Plan of the 4th century fort at South Shields. At the top is a row of barracks, originally granaries.In the centre is the Headquarters building, the ‘Principia’ with the forecourt granary adjacent.Then comes another row of barracks, and at the bottom is the ‘Courtyard House’.
The excavations at South Shields have continued to give surprises. The first stone fort was built around 160 as a conventional fort. However around 200 everything was reorganised and it became a supply base. A dividing wall was built across the middle and in the northern half all the barracks were pulled down and replaced by granaries. However around 230 AD it was re-organised yet again. In the northern half even the headquarters building was now replaced by a couple of granaries and a new mini-headquarters building was erected in the southern quadrant. This lasted to around 300 AD when it was all burnt down – accidental fire or enemy attack? And the new luxurious house was then laid out.
Underneath the barracks there have been further surprises. The most unexpected was the discovery of the parade ground of the very first fort of all. This is a large area of cobbles, all beautifully laid. The Roman soldiers clearly took their drill very seriously.
The Roman parade ground at Arbeia. Note the elaborate division down the centre, dividing it into quadrants.
Sealed beneath the parade ground was an even greater surprise, a well preserved Iron Age roundhouse which makes a satisfyingly long sequence of occupation on the site.
This is a shortened version of an article originally published in Current Archaeology 133, which also has additional photos and plans.