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Honor Frost: a legacy in the field of underwater archaeology

A stone anchor at the Temple of the Obelisks, Byblos.A stone anchor at the Temple of the Obelisks, Byblos.

Honor Frost’s death on September 12, 2010, brought an end to an era. She represented the heroic period of aqualung diving and was the first person to marry it to archaeology – a double pioneer. She was also the first to promote underwater archaeology as a serious discipline and to introduce it to the world.

Frost saw aqualung-diving and the archaeological method as a necessary balance and was fond of quoting “si le plongeur savait – si l’archeologue pouvait…” (if the diver knew – if the archaeologist could) and in herself combined the two in style.

An only child, Frost was born on October 28, 1917 – 100 years ago – in Nicosia, Cyprus. She lost both her parents in childhood and was placed under the legal guardianship of Wilfred Evill, a noted London solicitor. He ensured she received the most prestigious education, and over the years they developed a close, although sometimes stormy, friendship. On Evill’s death, Frost inherited his estate and an extraordinary array of works of art acquired by her guardian in the inter-war years.

Her connections with the art world were significant, for she had studied at the Central School of Art, London, and the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, and then worked as a designer for the Ballet Rambert, and finally became director of publications at the Tate Gallery.

After excavating and reconstructing a Carthaginian warship at Marsala in Sicily, in 2002, Honor Frost (left) was made honorary citizen of Marsala and socio onorario del Lions Club Marsala. Here she is seen with Beatrice Conigliaro Lucentini.After excavating and reconstructing a Carthaginian warship at Marsala in Sicily, in 2002, Honor Frost (left) was made honorary citizen of Marsala and socio onorario del Lions Club Marsala. Here she is seen with Beatrice Conigliaro Lucentini.

As she herself related in her first work Under the Mediterranean (1963) about her experiences as an archaeologist, Frost’s entry into the underwater world happened by accident. Just after World War II, she attended a party at a 17th-century house on Wimbledon Hill, in southwest London. In the garden was a well, and her host strangely invited her to try a diving suit attached to a hand pump which had been used in World War II for shallow water work.

Frost descended and became entranced by the experience; she was moved in particular by the falling leaves drifting through the water around her. She was hooked and thus began a lifetime’s devotion to underwater discovery. Underwater, she realised, “the mind loses its habits of anxiety, while powers of contemplation increase”.

Frost observed that while numerous scholars were fascinated by the remains of ancient coastal structures, interest stopped at the water’s edge. She soon became convinced that “time spent on the surface was time wasted” and, in the late 1940s, began training at Cannes with the Club Alpin Sous-Marin.

With the club, under the guidance of archaeologist Frederic Dumas, she dived to her first wreck, a large Roman ship lying at the foot of a rock called the Balise de la Chretienne, off the south coast of France at Antheor.

“Around 15 metres [away] I could just make out the wreck, or rather a tumble of amphorae extending as far as the eye could see,” she recalled. The wreck was inhabited by a colony of octopuses, “graceful, playful and as sensuous as cats when tickled”.

Frost at the planning table at Cape Gelidonya with George Bass and Peter Throckmorton.Frost at the planning table at Cape Gelidonya with George Bass and Peter Throckmorton.

A chance encounter in the early 1950s took Frost to the Middle East, where she worked for Kathleen Kenyon as an archaeological draughtsman at excavations in Jericho, Israel. There she drew plans of underground Bronze Age tombs and their contents. Though she did not enjoy working on dry land, Frost was struck by the contrast between the gung-ho excavation of the Roman ship and the discipline and careful record-keeping of land-based archaeology, particularly the way in which the ‘context’ of the tombs was studied in as much detail as their contents.

After the dig was over, Frost moved to Lebanon and, under the wing of the Institut Français d’Archéologie in Beirut, explored the ancient harbours at Tyre and Sidon, and along the Syrian coast, which became a lifelong preoccupation. This was also the start of her interest in stone anchors – she spotted a series of them built into the walls of the Bronze Age temple at Byblos and then discovered similar anchors off the nearby coast.

Her curiosity led her to explore the southern coast of Turkey and, in 1957, she arrived with her aqualung at Bodrum, then a sleepy little village reached only by a dirt track. Here she met two like-minded divers, the American Peter Throckmorton and the Turk Mustafa Kapkin.

The three of them hired a caique and discovered an ancient wreck. Besides photographing it, Frost had the inspiration to apply her Jericho experience with Kenyon to make a detailed plan of the wreck. This was the genesis of scientific underwater archaeology.

Among other achievements, Frost was the first to recognise, in 1959, that a wrecked ship off the coast of Turkey at Gelidonya, which contained a rich cargo of copper and tin ingots, together with personal possessions of the crew, dated from the late Bronze Age and was early Phoenician. At the time of the discovery, scholars believed the Myceneans had dominated Mediterranean trade in the Bronze Age and that the Phoenicians were not present on the seas until the Iron Age.

Among her most important projects was a Unesco-sponsored expedition she led to survey the Pharos (lighthouse) site in the Port of Alexandria in 1968. She dived the site and confirmed the existence of ruins representing part of the Pharos as well as the remains of submerged buildings representing the lost palace of Alexander and the Ptolemies.  She published a preliminary report with drawings that revealed the site’s importance.

For the next two decades, however, the site remained more or less forgotten because of a lack of specialised archaeologists and the fact that the area was in a military zone. It was only in the 1990s that work there resumed.

Frost at work with Joseph Muscat, one of her most esteemed friends in Malta.Frost at work with Joseph Muscat, one of her most esteemed friends in Malta.

In 1971, the Sicilian authorities and the British School at Rome appointed Frost to direct the excavation of a Punic warship in Marsala harbour, off Sicily. It is believed to have been one of the Liburnian ‘longships’, an oared vessel with 17 sweeps per side, used by ancient Carthage in the Battle of the Aegates Islands (241 BC), the last battle of the First Punic War.

Frost’s fascination with the Mediterranean eventually led her to acquire a house in Senglea, which she considered her second home

The ship had been uncovered by a dredger in 1969 and, for several years, Frost and an international team of marine archaeologists worked on the site, publishing regular reports, before eventually restoring the wreck for display at the local museum.

She concluded that the warship had sunk stern-first after being rammed by the Romans. The crew had apparently abandoned ship, taking their weapons with them, but left evidence of their diet, including deer, goat, horse, ox, pig and sheep, as well as olives, nuts and fruit. There were also traces of cannabis, which the crew may have chewed as a stimulant before going into battle. The team also found a human skeleton, possibly of a Carthaginian sailor trapped by ballast. The ship’s ‘nationality’ was painted on the sides with letters by its Punic builders.

Frost in action, complete with a (modern) stone anchor.Frost in action, complete with a (modern) stone anchor.

Experience convinced Frost of the importance not only of recording shipwrecks of particular historical interest photographically, but also of representing them in meticulously detailed plans and finding out as much as possible about the surrounding sediments.

Frost’s fascination with the Mediterranean eventually led her to acquire a house in Senglea, which she considered her second home and where she met up with local friends and colleagues.

In the late 1960s, she undertook a survey and partial excavation of a ‘rocks-awash’ site which proved to be a Roman ship. This she rapidly and informatively published in the monograph The Mortar Wreck in Mellieħa Bay (1969). All her documentation and field notes were lodged with the National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta, where they are still cherished.

With commendable foresight, the Gollcher Foundation undertook the publication of the excavation report. This project augmented the long professional association between Frost and this island.

She was a frequent and incisive contributor to the Mariner’s Mirror, the journal of the Society for Nautical Research, often on her favourite topic: the stone anchor. Apart from writing, which inspired aspirants, officials and academics alike, she frequently visited pro­jects and was an indefatigable traveller and public speaker.

Her exceptional skills were recognised by the Society of Antiquaries, of which she was elected a fellow in 1969. In 1997, the French government awarded her a medal for pioneering submarine archaeology in Egypt and, in 2005, the British Sub-Aqua Club presented her with the Colin McLeod award for furthering international co-operation in diving.

The façade of the house in St Joseph Street, Senglea, that Frost used as a stepping stone for her excavations in the Mediterranean. She kept her equipment and met up with colleagues there.The façade of the house in St Joseph Street, Senglea, that Frost used as a stepping stone for her excavations in the Mediterranean. She kept her equipment and met up with colleagues there.

In addition to her excavation work, she was instrumental in promoting marine archaeology as a discipline. Even in her 80s she was active in promoting marine archaeology – she helped found the Council for Nautical Archaeology; was on the Council for the Society for Nautical Research for many years; and played a part in establishing the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology in 1972. She maintained her contacts with academics and officials to ensure that the field was held up to the high standards that she believed in.

Later in life, Frost had two hip replacements  but retained her inexhaustible energy. Just a few months before she died, she was planning yet another season at Sidon and also to visit India for the first time, to see what she believed to be the largest stone anchor in the world.

Towards the end of her life, Frost decided to  leave her valuable collection to be used for the establishment of a foundation to promote maritime archaeology with a focus on the eastern Mediterranean. She entrusted the responsibility of running the charitable foundation to seven trustees, whom she knew well through many different spheres and phases of her life, but all with close ties to her.

The Evill/Frost collection was sold after her death in June 2011 at Sotheby’s and raised more than twice what had been expected. A portion of these funds make up the Honor Frost Foundation’s endowment. The trustees are carrying on with the promotion of the interests of maritime archaeology and related fields, ensuring that the Honor Frost Foundation achieves a lasting legacy to reflect Frost’s dedication to the field she loved so much.

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