The Diving Diva

John Carswell pays tribute to his friend the late Honor Frost (1917–2010), doyenne of underwater archaeology

  • Honor Frost in Bodrum in the 1950s,
    photographed by her fellow diver Peter Throckmorton
    (courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)

Honor Frost led many lives, as an artist, ballet designer, scholar, writer and publicist, but she will be remembered most as the initiator of underwater archaeology as a serious field of study.

This happened in an almost fortuitous way, and involves Turkey in general and in particular Yassı Ada, a tiny island off the coast of Bodrum. As an old friend, she came to stay with me in the 1950s, when I was teaching at the American University of Beirut. She was already a competent diver, having been trained by Frédéric Dumas, Jacques Cousteau’s colleague, in the South of France. At that moment she had just been working with the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho, where she had inherited my previous job as an archaeological draughtsman, planning underground rock-cut tombs.

She had brought her aqualung with her, and that summer explored the coast of Lebanon, concentrating on Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, even venturing into Syria to investigate the island of Ruad, off Tartus. My own participation was peripheral; no diver myself, I was simply a spectator. One Saturday she decided to dive off the headland at Tabarja, a little fishing village close to Byblos. When we arrived Honor explained that diving alone could be dangerous, and my role was to watch and keep an eye on the trail of bubbles emitting from her aqualung.

Sitting on a rock I realised there are an awful lot of bubbles in the Mediterranean and soon got bored. Having spotted a little café nearby, I went and ordered a drink. I noticed an old Lebanese house across the bay that appeared abandoned and asked who owned it. It turned out that it belonged to the owner of the café and that he was prepared to rent it. In the meantime Honor had emerged from the sea, somewhat miffed at my defection from duty. But by the time she got to the café, I had agreed to rent the house for a year. The house was a perfect example of a type found all over the Levant, two storeys high and with a triple arch and balcony facing the sea, but unusually with a flat roof. My new landlord explained it had been empty for years after being bombed during the Second World War. He had only recently put on a new concrete roof, to prevent any further decay. At that moment, little did I guess that it was to become my home for the next 20 years.

I moved out of my apartment in Beirut and Honor followed close on my heels, having decided that it would be an excellent base for her further underwater exploration. She would disappear for days, sometimes weeks on end. I remember waking up one morning when Honor suddenly arrived in a fishing boat, wearing a fur coat.

That summer when I had finished teaching, Honor suggested we should travel together so that she could investigate the southern coast of Turkey. We booked a flight on Turkish Airlines from Beirut to Adana, and having failed with the bubbles, this time my role was to wear her lead belt, and she would carry the aqualung.

When we landed, the customs officer lifted the flap of my jacket and was puzzled to discover the lead belt. Quick as a flash, Honor said “Spor”, knowing the Turks were mad about sports, and he let me go without asking exactly what spor it was for. From Adana we travelled along the coast on country buses. I sat with my belt, with Honor beside me with the aqualung on her lap wrapped in a red chequered kafeer. When an inquisitive lady asked what she was carrying, she firmly announced “Baybee”, and loosened the valve to supply a corroborative hiss.

After a week or so we finally arrived down a dirt track at Bodrum. In those days it was 
a tiny fishing village with no more than a couple of hundred inhabitants. We lodged in the only pansyon, and quickly met two other divers. One was an American, Peter Throckmorton, who had just arrived from India, where he had been photographing tigers. The other was Turkish, Mustafa Kaptan, on his annual holiday from Izmir.

The three divers quickly discovered they had a common objective, which was to find an underwater wreck. They hired a caique, and with the help of local fishermen they did indeed locate a Byzantine wreck, laden with amphorae, just off a tiny island called Yassı Ada.

Peter took photographs with his underwater camera, and Honor set about measuring the wreck, using exactly the same methods she had learned at Jericho planning tombs. As for me, I was set down on Yassı Ada, and spent happy hours all alone, swimming and drawing the pottery they recovered.

It can justly be claimed that this was the birth of scientific underwater archaeology, with the meticulous recording of a shipwreck before lifting its contents. This was a process which Honor was to refine for the rest of her life. Her reputation was firmly established by her work in Alexandria (1968) and the discovery, excavation and conservation of a Punic warship at Marsala in Sicily (1971).

We kept in touch over the years, and our paths crossed just a couple of years ago. We had both been invited to an international symposium in India entitled Gujarat and the Sea. She was chosen as the doyenne of underwater archaeology, and I because of a growing interest in the history of maritime trade between China and the West via the Indian Ocean.

But we both had ulterior motives. For Honor, it provided a chance to inspect what was purportedly the largest stone anchor ever found, off the southern tip of India. For me, it was an opportunity to see an important hoard of Chinese porcelain discovered below the walls of a Tughluq palace in Delhi. We decided we would travel together.

Honor was 94 and still an active diver. Unfortunately, she reacted adversely to a course of injections, became seriously ill and swiftly died. She never knew she was to have been the guest of honour in Gujarat.

Born in Cyprus in 1917, she lost both her parents as a young girl and became the ward of Wilfrid Evill, a London solicitor. Through Honor I got to know Wilfrid too, and stayed in his house in Hampstead, where he had amassed an extraordinary collection of modern British painting, Regency furniture, Chinese porcelain and other works of art. When he died a bachelor in 1963, it was no surprise to learn that he had left his entire collection to Honor. When she herself died in 2010 she had decided that Wilfrid’s collection should be sold, to endow a foundation consecrated to underwater archaeology. The collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s over three days in 2011, and made over £41 million. This is the basis of the Honor Frost Foundation, to support principally marine and maritime archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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