If there were a trowelblazer most likely to have a secret superhero alter ego, it would be Honor Frost (1917-2010). Orphaned young, she became the ward of the wealthy solicitor and art collector Mr Wilfred Evill. By day, her pursuits were lady-like: art school, ballet set design, a job at the Tate… but by night, Honor Frost was the kind of woman who happily climbed into a WW2 diving suit and descended into the watery depths of a 17th Century well. In a friend’s back garden in Wimbledon. At a party. As one does. If one is a secret superhero about to come into their powers, that is….*

This was Frost’s first experience of diving, and it changed the course of her life. “Time spent out of the water,” she would later write**, “was time wasted.” She joined the first ever scubadiving club, the Club Alpin Sous-Marin in Cannes, in the late 1940s. And so it was that she explored her first ancient shipwreck with Frederic Dumas, becoming a true pioneer of both scuba diving and underwater archaeology.

But Honor Frost was more than just a pioneering underwater adventurer. She was the person who brought proper archaeological rigour to underwater archaeology at the field’s inception. She did her time in the trenches on dry land, working with Kathleen Kenyon on the last field season at Jericho, and this made her realise the need for careful site (and find) records, and especially detailed site plans.

She put this into practice at the excavation of a Bronze Age Phoenician Ship off Cape Gelidonya, Turkey. Frost, Turkish diver Mustafa Kapkin and US photo-journalist Peter Throckmorton discovered the wreck in 1959, but it was Frost who recognised that the wreck was Phoenician, not Mycenean. This was the first evidence that the Phoenicians took to the seas to trade prior to the Iron Age.

Honor Frost convinced Joan du Plat Taylor to come on board (sorry!) as co-director of the Gelidonya excavation, while Throckmorton brought in George Bass, a young graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. What Bass lacked in experience, he made up for in funding — and thus the Gelidonya wreck became his PhD thesis topic, and he the primary site director. The Gelidonya wreck was the first underwater excavation to be carried out with a proper, scientific approach – and while many reports ommit the key contributions of Honor Frost to the birth of this field, her role here was vital.

Frost would go on to excavate beneath much of the Mediterranean Sea: the lighthouse (or ‘Pharos’) of Alexandria; a Punic warship sunk by the Romans of the coast of Sicily in 241BC; a Roman cargo shipfrom 300AD, sunk after hitting a reef off Malta, to name just a few. But her core research specialism was the archaeology and typology of stone anchors: these anchors left behind on the sea-bed are the ghosts of voyages past, allowing ancient war- and trade- routes to be plotted. They might not be as glamorous as a shipwrek, but they are a darn-sight more common! She sadly died (at the age of 92, mind!) before completing her final field season at Sidon, Lebanon — and before going to India to see what she believed to be the largest stone anchor ever made.

Honor Frost inherited Mr Evill’s substantial art collection and estate. On her death, this was used to endow the Honor Frost Foundation, an organisation which funds underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean to this day. Go apply for funding & become the next Honor Frost!

* HF probably wasn’t a secret superhero, obviously. But, well, you know…

** I think this quote is from HF’s Under the Mediterranean, but not sure as I couldn’t get hold of a copy.


Read more about Honor Frost’s life and work here and here.

This article on Joan de Plat Taylor by Nicolle Hirschfield offers some insight into the politics of the Gelidonya excavation.

And this [pdf] is Honor Frost writing about stone anchors in 1996. Worth a read if, like I was, you are a stranger to their many delights!

Finally, take a look at Gabe Moscheska’s #troweltoon – a far more fabulous version of this story!

Written by Tori (@toriherridge), based on the links referenced above.

Posted by Suzie (@suzie_birch).

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