Down from the Wall

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Betty Jerman explores the reconstructions which enliven the life of the Romans in Britain

Hadrian's Wall is an extraordinary relic not only of a massive military presence defending the northern frontier of the Roman Empire but also providing evidence of the way of life in the Roman garrisons. However, without briefing and a generous use of imagination, the excavations could impress children as not much more than an long spread of old stones.

At the Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields, a huge supply base for Hadrian's Wall 8,000 years ago, the west gateway has been reconstructed to provide visible information. The site of the fort and the archaeological excavations can be viewed from the battlements. Here can be seen model soldiers, a model of the fort and the display gateway to the past.

Do not miss the quartermaster's store, tucked away beside the gateway entrance. The stocky figure of the quartermaster stands among his supplies, barrels of apples, "live" pigs, furs, fish, carrots, parsnips, pottery and glassware, sacks of prunes and figs, an amphora of olive oil. Spot the figure of a cat, presumably dozy since there is a rat among broken eggshells.

In the nearby museum "The daily life of a soldier" displays excavated items such as military fittings, tools, building materials such as tiles, chimney pots. Questions about off-duty life may be answered by gaming pieces and dice, cooking materials, an altar with statuettes of gods and goddesses, lead seals, and jewellery. In the death and burial gallery the laid-out skeleton is a woman, with brooch, bracelet, hair pins, perfume bottle, plates and cups. Here too are tombstones and altars.

There is also a Roman herb garden in the free part of the site.

The fort was voted favourite children's visit in the BT North East Museums and Galleries Awards 1995. Since then a new an additional attraction has been created in "Time Quest", the hands-on Barbour Archaeology Resource Centre, designed to give children an insight into how archaeologists work.

In a full-scale replica of an excavation site, built using materials from Roman barracks complete with a drain and pits, children find archaeologists' tools like buckets, trowels, brushes so they can uncover real bones, bits of pottery. If they find a skull it will be plastic. Note the wall demonstrating generations of human rubbish since 3,000 BC, Roman, medieval, Victorian, modern.

The excavation site is under cover and part of the roomy archaeology resource centre. There children can weave cloth with a heddle, which incorporates little strips of bones to hold the threads. Under magnifiers they can examine collective substances to identify grain, seeds, insects, bark, moss, even a snail. They can draw animals and write on wax tablets using the wide end of a stylus to scrape for re-use. There are small altars, Roman artefacts to handle, demonstrations of ancient crafts.

Teachers' packs of activity sheets are available and a guide for junior children in story form entitled "The Oak Leaves of the Fifth". Roman costume, pottery and posters may be loaned; living history activities sometimes organised.

Arbeia Roman Fort, Baring Street, South Shields. Tel: 0191 456 8740. Adults Pounds 1, children 50p

The modern interpretation of life for the Roman garrisons at the indoor Roman Army Museum at Greenhead has life-size, fully-dressed figures with helmets, swords and shields.

There are the Legion's standards, chariots, saddles and a display of weapons including a catapult. In contrast the informally dressed figure cleaning a weapon beside bunk beds in the barracks room has around him a musical instrument and a dice game.

Press a button to start the film featuring the Ermine Street Guard, the group that re-enacts Roman times. A Centurion, splendidly impressive in full rig, puts a soldier through his paces displaying the armour and weapons. Two off duty soldiers, one breaking off from writing to his mother, talk about the conditions, pay, future prospects.

The film concludes with an invitation to join up. Schools can copy a recruitment sheet so pupils can become Legionary or Auxiliary soldiers. A button is also pressed on a map which lights up the location of the first invasion of Britain and gradually illuminates the whole area conquered by the Romans.

Roman Army Museum, Greenhead, Northumberland CA6 7JB. Tel: 016977 47485. Adults Pounds 2.50 children Pounds 1.50. 10 per cent discount on parties 15 upwards, one free adult per 20 children

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