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Where Were They? The Absence of Roman Settlement in Tynemouth

The Castle Banks (Penbal Crag) Tynemouth, looking over the harbour to South Shields and the Roman fort of Arbeia atop the Lawe.

2022 marks 1900 years since work on Hadrian’s Wall commenced in 122 AD, and this post seeks to shed light on an important question of Roman presence on Tyneside and the social and political context around why Tynemouth was largely left alone by the Romans, when Arbeia at South Shields was so prominent and the frontier so important to them.

Hadrian’s Wall originally ended at Newcastle, but was later extended to Segedunum in Wallsend. Yet the puzzling thing is that in the hundreds of years that the Romans were in Britain, they didn’t feel the need to build the Wall all the way to the sea in the east of the country, despite doing so on the west coast all the way to Bowness.

In addition to a number of harbours, forts and roads on the south side of the River Tyne, on the north side between Wallsend and the Coast, there were stations like Blake Chesters at North Shields, a probable farmstead at Marden in Cullercoats, and there are many rerences to a natural ridge of earthen ramparts or ‘Fosse’ stretching east from the Wall, running more or less along the route of the Metro line today.

But the site of Tynemouth Priory, the highest point around at the Tyneside Coast, seems to have been left unfortified. Of course, the natural fortifications of both the Penbal Crag and the Tyne east of Segedunum are significant in themselves. Yet would it not have been desirable from a point of completeness, to finish the Wall off? The Romans were not ones for doing things by halves, evidenced by the magnitude and ambition of the Wall itself.

Perhaps the reason Tynemouth and was left alone was that it was a religious site that was of sacred importance to friendly Britons of the Votadini tribe living around there.

The Romans were pragmatic about religion and the historian John Brand, writing in the late 18th century, asserted that the site of the Priory was home to a temple to the wind god Aeolous. It is not a stretch to imagine Penbal Crag as a much older Celtic place of ritual.

Maybe the Votadini, whose fiefdom reached all the way to Edinburgh, invited the Romans to the region, to build the Wall and protect them from Pictish cattle raiders and barbarians beyond their realm in the wild hills of Northumbria and Cumbria, who frequently made marauding incursions into the relatively settled Tyne-Forth province.

Maybe agreements or a treaty were in place to leave the sacred area of Tynemouth be, with the concession of a modest camp and residence for the prefect, as claimed in the inaugural edition of Archaelogia Aeliana by the Northumbrian antiquary Thomas Hodgson. While musing on the Roman presence in Tynemouth, he goes as far as to conclude that it was indeed a place of pleasure for the prefect:

“I am therefore inclined to be of opinion , that the station at Tynemouth was only a secondary station or fort, subordinate to that at Wallsend , and under the command of the prefect of the Cohort stationed there. Motives of pleasure or the nature of the service on which he was employed , would no doubt often induce him to fix his quarters here, and on some of such occasions this altar was probably erected.”

Observations on the Altar and Inscription found at Tynemouth in the year 1781, by Mr Thomas Hodgson, Archaelogia Aelieana, Volume I, p236 (1822)

The remains found at the Priory amount to little more than a few pieces of tiles, jugs and coins as well as the foundations of two Romano-British era roundhouses. There is though, the curious find of an exceptionally rare samian bowl of excellent quality and preservation along with two skeletons, buried a mile to the north on the banks of the Longsands. The bowl is decorated with the sacred emblems of Bacchus, namely, the vine and the leopard.

2nd century bowl, excavated in Tynemouth in 1876

A Roman road most likely did lead into Tynemouth along Bath Terrace and the area could have been a place of trade and interaction with the Britons, who perhaps customarily provided the sons of their chiefs as hostages, to be educated in the Roman way, while politically strategic marriages were arranged in return for the status quo to be preserved and for trade, particularly trade in wine, to prosper.

Tynemouth, then, as a place of peaceful interchange and recreation would have given rise to regular celebration through festivals of the Bacchanalia and other religious events, keeping it a sanctuary and haven free from militrarised occupation.

The Wall at Wallsend

For more precise info on the few Roman finds at the Priory see Craster’s ‘History of Northumberland’ (107) p36-38. For info on the decorated samian bowl, see ‘Archaeolgia Aeliana’ Series 5, Vol 26 (1998) p161-163 article by Paul Bidwell.

Marden in Cullercoats was the site of a prehistoric settlement which seemingly the Romans subsumed, as they did with other Iron Age bases. Among the finds in gardens there is an exquisite bone die pictured here: https://twitter.com/LuanHanratty/status/1613833041205514241

The Shields Evening News, June 13th 1950, runs an intriguing story featuring an extensive list of Roman finds in Tynemouth. Each of these needs to be studied, but at first glance at least two of the objects are from South Shields.

A follow-up to this post regarding the treaty with the Romans is here:

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