Honor Frost - The First Female Underwater Archaeologist

Honor Frost holding a skandalopetra divers' anchor

We love to celebrate pioneering women in the world of scuba diving, and if we've ever heard a story which fits the bill it's this one! Lauren Tidbury of the Honor Frost Foundation tells us more.

Read on to learn about Honor's incredible history, and how her legacy continues to inspire a new generation of divers to protect underwater heritage.

“There were 6 metres of black water above my head and I sucked air through a mouthpiece, connected by hose to a pump on the surface. Sometimes I forgot and breathed through my nose which meant drawing out the negligible quantity of air in my suit as opposed to the supply to my mouth.

 

A full moon shone on the snow-covered garden, but I was no longer conscious of that world. This first crazy experiment reduced the act of diving to its essentials. My mind was confused neither by exotic surroundings nor the beauties of subaqueous light and landscape, for the baptism took place in a well in Wimbledon”  - Frost

 

This was written by Honor Frost after her first experience of diving in the winter of 1952, when she had been invited to try out an experimental diving suit coupled up to a pump in a well in Wimbledon, London. This marked the beginning of a lifelong career in underwater archaeology.  Honor was regularly quoted as saying that ‘time spent on the surface was time wasted’.

Black and white image of Honor Frost scuba diving for underwater archaeology
Honor Frost exploring underwater | Image via HF Archive, Hartley Library, University of Southampton

Honor Frost was born in Cyprus in 1917, she grew up with a love for the sea. However, her first career was in the arts as a set designer for the ballet. It wasn’t until the 1950s that her love for the sea became her career. In 1960 she played a fundamental role in what became known as the first systematic underwater excavation, this was on the Late Bronze Age Shipwreck off Cape Gelidonya in Turkey. 

 

Honor Frost was one of the first women to SCUBA dive, she trained at the Club Alpin Sous-Marin in Cannes along with the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Frederic Dumas. She pioneered new techniques in underwater archaeology and stressed that it was possible to undertake excavation underwater to the same standards as on land. However, very little is still known about her beyond the world of maritime archaeology, yet despite facing many hurdles she was relentless in her pursuit of discovering the past…

 

In the 1950s and 60s Honor spent a lot of time diving off Lebanon and Syria, despite being encumbered with a broken hand after a car crash. She recorded structures underwater from ancient ports and harbours, as well as shipwrecks, and her love of anchors began to grow as she realised the potential of these seemingly simple artefacts to tell us stories about ancient seafaring. 

Underwater shipwreck with overlaid quote from Honor Frost reading "Time spent on the surface is time wasted"

“On the 16th September 1966, I spent five hours being towed along the landward side of the northern reef, stopping to dive on unusual features and landing on the rocky islets. In this way it was possible to get a general impression of the area and, by making traverses, to examine the submerged northern and southern limits of the reef” - Frost

 

This was written by Honor after diving off the coast of Tyre in Lebanon. Later in the 1960s, she was asked to survey the Lighthouse site (Pharos) in the Port of Alexandria, Egypt. Then in 1971, she led an international team to record and excavate a Punic shipwreck off the coast of Sicily, which dated to the 3rd Century BC.

 

As well as her excavation and survey work, she was instrumental in establishing the Council for Nautical Archaeology and the International Journal for Nautical Archaeology. Throughout her career, she emphasised the need for an interdisciplinary approach to understanding our maritime heritage and also recognised the importance of publication and dissemination.

Honor’s first book was entitled ‘Under the Mediterranean, Travels with my Bottle’. This superb read recalls her time spent travelling across the eastern Mediterranean, and the many issues she faced, including pretending her dive tank was a baby in order to transport it more easily on buses across Turkey!

 

Honor continued diving into her late 80s. In fact, she was still using the same diving gear that she used in her early years of diving. When she died in 2010 she left the bulk of her estate to set up a Foundation to support maritime archaeology, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.

 

The Honor Frost Foundation is now ten years old and in that time the Foundation has supported over 250 research projects, scholarships at Masters, Doctoral and Post Doctoral level, bursaries and dive Training.

Three scuba divers underwater during a marine archaeological expedition looking at a column near Cyprus
HFF Maritime Archaeological Director Dr Lucy Blue recording a marble column near Cyprus | Image via Steven Lopez

Many students inspired by Honor have gone on to continue her legacy and are undertaking research on underwater sites, training the next generation of maritime archaeologists and promoting and protecting underwater cultural heritage. Honor Frost was a truly remarkable and inspirational woman, despite being one of the only and original females in the field and having had no formal academic training. Without her the field of maritime archaeology would not be where it is today.

 

Her passion for diving and maritime heritage inspired many other women to take up careers in this field, and her Foundation has facilitated the continuation of training and funding of research into our maritime past. 

 

2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Punic Ship which Honor went on to excavate over four years, and it is now on display in a museum in Marsala, Sicily. To mark the anniversary the Foundation began exploring her extensive archive to find out more about this fascinating site and to tell the story to the public.

Scuba divers shining lights whilst recording a deep marine archaeological site in Malta
Recording the Phoenician Shipwreck in 110m of water | Image via University of Malta

 

The podcast series Dive & Dig was launched to celebrate Honor’s career as well as her legacy - exploring new discoveries, sites, and how recent recording techniques are helping us to raise awareness about our fascinating history that lies beneath the waves. Fifty years on from the excavation of the Punic shipwreck, the Foundation has supported a project off Malta to excavate and record a Phoenician shipwreck which lies at a depth of 110 metres under the water!

 

Diving technology has come a long way since Honor first started in that well in Wimbledon, allowing archaeologists to access sites much deeper and for longer, thus further expanding our knowledge of our maritime past. 


About the Author

Lauren is a maritime archaeologist and works for the Honor Frost Foundation. She is an experienced diver and has worked on underwater archaeological projects around the world, from submerged prehistoric landscapes to WWI shipwrecks. Lauren has a degree in Archaeology and a Masters in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton.

Find her on Twitter @LVTidbury 


About the Honor Frost Foundation

The Honor Frost Foundation was founded in 2011 with a major bequest from the late Honor Frost (1917-2010), an early pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology. The Foundation’s mission is to promote the advancement and research, including publication, of maritime archaeology with particular focus on the eastern Mediterranean, specifically Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and also Egypt.

Find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter