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Fire! The barracks at South Shields

Excavation of the granaries and barracks at the fort of Arbeia at South Shields all revealed destruction by fire. The latest coins found in these fire-destroyed buildings date to the 290s.

But how are these burnt buildings to be interpreted? Was it through some sort of enemy action or attack on the fort? Was there an accidental fire that spread from building to building? Or could it have been the result of deliberate destruction to clear the fort of a pest infestation or clearance in advance of a new phase of construction?

Archaeological remains can help to answer these questions. At least one of the granaries burnt with lots of grain in it, and it this may suggest the fire was unplanned. Furthermore, there were extensive fire deposits concentrated at the southern ends of the barracks. The barracks also contained a number of personal possessions; for example a complete suit of ringmail armour was found in one barrack, and there have also been objects of gold found. Like the granary, this also provides another indication that the fire was unplanned, otherwise such valuable objects would have been removed beforehand.

Forensic examination of the fire-damaged buildings and objects has also been able to determine the spread of the fire through the fort, to some extent. Two scenarios are offered, one provided by archaeological observation and interpretation, the other by a fire marshal.

Archaeological scenario:

The barracks in the eastern corner of the fort seem to have been set alight at their northern ends, possibly separately, rather than the fire spreading from building to building. If this is indeed the case, then that suggests the fire is not accidental. This suggested to the excavators that the fire of the late 3rd century at South Shields may have been a result of enemy action. But which enemy?

Fire marshal scenario:

No clear source for the origin of the fire was identified, but it is speculated that a stray spark in a barrack room is the start of the fire, growing on combustible contents (like clothing, furniture, bedding). If the fire goes unnoticed, it could spread into the roof space and along the barrack in either direction. The proximity of the barracks in conjunction with localised drafts and thermals in the small spaces between buildings would help to spread the fire from building to building, and the prevailing wind would spread the fire even further within the fort.

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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