Honor Frost – pioneer of maritime archaeology – was still diving into her 90s. In fact, according to Lucy Blue on the Honor Frost Foundation’s excellent Dive & Dig podcast, she did so in the same kit she had been wearing since the 1960s. With Frost, none of this should come as a surprise.
There are many ways to begin in archaeology, but it is safe to assume no careers advisor ever suggested fitting yourself out with an improvised breathing hose at a London party, as Frost did in order to explore a 17th-century well. Hers was never a normal life. Born in Cyprus, she moved to London as the ward of solicitor Wilfred Evill when her parents died. He was an avid art collector and it seemed Honor would follow him, studying at the Central School of Art and then, in Oxford, the Ruskin School of Art. She created ballet sets – for the Ballet Rambert and Sadler’s Wells – and ran the publications department of the Tate Gallery.
Then, in the 1950s – inspired by the escapade in the well – she joined the Cannes-based Club Alpin Sous-Marin to train as a scuba diver, a discipline then in its infancy. From the very beginning, she pursued her fascination with archaeological rigour, even polishing her drafting skills on land with Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho.
Working around the Mediterranean – Lebanon, Sicily, Turkey, Malta – she developed specialisms in the underwater archaeology of harbours and, especially, anchors, but perhaps her greatest archaeological contribution was the excavation of the Cape Gelidonya wreck. Having catalogued Bronze Age artefacts brought up in 1959 by Mustafa Kapkin and Peter Throckmorton, Frost worked on the wreck itself with George Bass, identifying it as early Phoenician through what is now seen as the first systematic excavation of a shipwreck.
It should be remembered, in these days of autonomous submersibles, photogrammetry, and rapid data-processing using artificial intelligence, that Frost’s discoveries were made using (in Blue’s words) ‘pencils and tape measures, and writing notes on slates’. Despite such limitations, she began, in 1967, investigations on a Maltese reef of a 4th-century AD Roman cargo vessel packed with mortars (investigations later continued under Timmy Gambin in the 2010s); surveyed the Pharos, Alexandria’s ancient lighthouse, in 1968; and, in the 1970s, raised a 3rd-century BC Punic wreck from off Sicily.
Alongside her work in the field, Frost was an energetic advocate for maritime archaeology, co-founding the Council for Nautical Archaeology and the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, and her enthusiasm was always infectious. The podcast quotes Frost, on the discovery of ‘a large timber, such as I’d never seen before, emerg[ing] from the sand like the head a primeval animal crowned with weed’ – the vision of a visionary archaeologist.
Images: Honor Frost Archive, Special Collections, University of Southampton / Steve Nathanson. Text: Simon Coppock.