Arbeia Roman Fort stands on a hilltop at the mouth of the River Tyne, looking across the river to Segedunum, the end of Hadrian’s Wall. Although Arbeia was not itself on the Wall it was part of the overall defences of the northern frontier of the Roman empire. So it seemed logical to visit it as part of my exploration of the Wall and the frontier region.
And there was another reason why I wanted to go. A number of Arbeia’s buildings have been reconstructed, so that visitors can experience them as they might have been in Roman times. These reconstructions have attracted a certain amount of controversy and I wanted to be able to judge for myself.
Exploring Arbeia Roman Fort
Compared with the forts on Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman remains at Arbeia are not extensive. There is a good reason for this: the site was covered with houses in Victorian times. The area was later cleared, but much of the building above ground level has been lost. However you can still see the remains of several buildings, including the granaries. This is where food was stored – very important to Arbeia because it later became a supply base for Hadrian’s Wall.
There are two small museum areas. One contains altars and other artefacts recovered from the site. And the other, in the Gatehouse, includes a display of reproduction armour and weaponry. There is also a “whifferama” here, where you can sniff various Roman smells, some more pleasant than others!
But it is the reconstructed buildings that are most interesting. Arbeia Roman Fort bills itself as the “most extensively reconstructed Roman fort in the country”. The site includes a reconstructed Gatehouse as well as a barrack block and the Commanding Officer’s house. If you time your visit carefully you may also be able to see re-enactments of Roman and military history.
Pros and Cons of Reconstructions
The Gatehouse is an impressive reconstruction of the original West Gate. Visitors can walk through the inner rooms and climb up to the top. Here they can walk along the ramparts and look out over the river and the surrounding landscape, just as a soldier might have done in the 2nd century. But there was controversy when the Gatehouse was first opened in 1988. Critics argued that it might not be an accurate representation of the original. Worse still, it was a “dumbing down” of an important historical site.
But many academics and museum experts are in favour of reconstructions, seeing them as a benefit to researchers as well as visitors. After all, they say, we are accustomed to the idea of artists’ impressions – pictures or models of ancient sites – and reconstructions are just the logical next step. And they enhance rather than diminish the visitor’s experience. Most visitors are not experts in Roman Britain and the reconstructed buildings help them to understand and interpret what they are seeing. For instance, the Arbeia Gatehouse gives a sense of the size and scale of the fort buildings in a way that bare facts and figures could never do.
The Reconstructed Buildings of Arbeia
So far as accuracy is concerned, the general principle is that museums should make it clear what information they have used and where they have had to make assumptions. At Arbeia the Gatehouse is in its original position, having been built over the foundations of the original West Gate. It was built as far as possible using our current understanding of Roman building materials and techniques. And the design was based on fragments found on the site and on what we know of Roman gateways from information elsewhere (including contemporaneous drawings and the remains of gatehouses at other forts). Similarly, the barracks and Commanding Officer’s house were built above the excavated remains, so that the size of the rooms is accurate. And Roman drawings and other documents were used, along with evidence from other buildings across the empire.
I found these buildings fascinating. You can walk inside one of the soldiers’ apartments, a cramped and unwelcoming space that would have accommodated eight men, together with their armour and weapons. And immediately behind the barracks is the beautifully decorated house that was the home of the Commanding Officer and his family. You can explore the bedrooms (which would have had underfloor heating), the spacious dining room, and the office which would put some 21st century offices to shame. Without the reconstructions I don’t think I would have fully appreciated the contrast in living standards between two groups of people living literally side by side with one another. It was enough to convince me of the value of reconstructing ancient buildings.