Arbeia - 'The Place of the Arabs'




The earliest reference to the Roman fort at South Shields occcurs in the Notitia Dignitatum of the 4th/5th century, where the garisson fort Arbeia (vide infra) is listed between the entries for Verbeia (Ilkley, West Yorkshire) and an unknown station named Dictium. Arbeia is thought to be a Latinised form of a name originally from Aramaic - the native language of the last attested unit stationed at the fort - meaning 'the Place of the Arabs'.

 The Gatehouse Reconstruction

The fort at South Shields has been identified with theHorrea Classis entry of the Ravenna Cosmography, which was a list of forts and posting stations compiled for the Severan campaigns of the early third century. This Latin name means 'The Granaries of the Fleet', which certainly describes the Arbeia storage depot, and possibly indicates that part at least of the Classis Britannia or the 'British Fleet' may have been based here in South Shields. This view is now discredited, however, and Horrea Classis is now thought to refer to the Severan fort at Carpow overlooking the mouth of the Tay in Scotland.

The sixteenth-century antiquary, John Leland, gives the name as Caer Urfa, which appears to be a simple corruption of the earlier Roman name, prefixed by Caer, a Welsh word meaning 'a fortified place' which is typical of the early Saxon era. The modern name is first recorded in 1235 as Scheles, which is a Middle English term for a group of makeshift huts or shelters, in this case probably used by fishermen; there were evidently more of these temporary dwellings on the opposite bank of the Tyne at North Shields.

During excavations over the years at the South Shields fort a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of domestic Ox, Sheep, Goat and Pig, also game such as Red Deer, Boar and Elk; the latter animals very likely being hunted and killed for sport and as a means of supplementing the soldiers' diet. As one might expect from a fort positioned close to the coast, a number of molluscs were also eaten atArbeia, including Oyster, Mussel, Limpet, Winkle and Edible Snail.