THE man who turned Vindolanda Roman Fort and Museum into the font of history and education it is today has died.

Archaeologist and historian Robin Birley was surrounded by his family – son Andrew, daughter Sonya, brother Tony and his devoted wife and soulmate Patricia – when he passed away on August 29 at the age of 83.

The family has received hundreds of messages from all over the world paying tribute to the man who broke the mould.

The son of renowned archaeologist Eric Birley, Robin grew up at Chesterholm, the much-extended house now at the heart of the museum.

When he assumed the reins from his father, archaeology was still the preserve of the privileged few. His daughter, Sonya Galloway, said: “Fundamental to what he wanted when he decided to establish the Vindolanda Trust was making it as accessible as possible, whether for people who wanted to take part in the archaeology or to use the trust’s findings for research.

“Last year we had 100,000 visitors here, many of them taking part in volunteer activities, and he was very proud of that – of letting everyone who was interested into a world that had been open only to academics and specialists when he started up.”

There were many remarkable finds at Vindolanda during Robin’s 30 years at the helm, not least the world-famous Vindolanda Tablets in 1973. The letters and notes written on Rome’s most northerly frontier almost 2,000 years ago are now in the British Museum.

It was during that era Robin realised just how many periods of settlement there had been at Vindolanda – at least nine forts, rather than the three or four previously supposed.

A socialist at heart imbued with a strong sense of public duty, Robin also served as a Northumberland county councillor (including a stint as leader of the council), as Deputy Lord Lieutenant and as a senior magistrate.

But he actually began his career as a teacher, most notably at Gordonstoun, where he is credited with getting Prince Charles into Cambridge to read archaeology.

Sonya said: “Prince Charles was just one of seven princes he had in his class there.”

Robin’s funeral next Monday will be a private family affair, but a public service of commemoration will be arranged at Vindolanda in due course.