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Frost, Honor Elizabethfree

  • Angela Croome

Honor Elizabeth Frost (1917–2010)

by unknown photographer

© Honor Frost Foundation

Frost, Honor Elizabeth (1917–2010), marine archaeologist, was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, on 28 October 1917, the only child of Rodolph James Frost, banker, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Bisset. Her parents had married in Turkey where her paternal grandfather, a senior military man, had been adviser to the sultan. The family moved to Cyprus where Honor was born and grew up by the sea. Orphaned while still a child she became the ward of a wealthy London solicitor, Wilfred Ariel Evill (1890–1963), who saw to it that she had a good schooling, at the École Vinet in Lausanne. She became bilingual in French and Italian and comfortable in several other languages (including Turkish) and dyslexic in those in which she wrote.

In the late 1930s Frost moved to England. She attended the Central School of Art in London where she was a contemporary of Lucian Freud, to whom she remained close for many years. She continued her studies at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, where she joined the University Ballet Club and wrote a booklet, How a Ballet is Made, for the Golden Galley Press. During the blitz on London she drove a fire-engine. On 22 March 1945, at Marylebone register office, she married Captain Edward Boyce Barrow Cunning (1909–1986), a book publisher then serving in the Buffs, and son of Joseph Cunning, surgeon. The marriage lasted six weeks. After the separation she never had a good word for the institution and advised young friends against it.

With the war over Frost launched herself on the London art world. She had been absorbed by ballet since she was twelve. Now was her chance. She and a choreographer friend, Celia Franca, had long planned a full-length ballet on a Persian theme. Khadra was put on at Sadlers Wells in July 1946 to wide acclaim. It had little story but Frost's designs based on Persian miniatures were enchanting. Ballet training never left her. To the end of her life she carried herself like a princess, her back ramrod straight however many bones she broke. 'I've broken every bone in my body', she used to say (personal knowledge).

Frost's bizarre initiation to the underwater world, down a well in Wimbledon with air provided through a garden hose, persuaded her that 'time spent on the surface was time wasted' (Under the Mediterranean, 5). But true apprenticeship in aqualung diving came from convalescing abroad and frequenting the Cannes divers' club (Club Alpin Sous-Marin) where Frédéric Dumas, Georges Barnier, and others who had helped Jacques Cousteau develop the aqualung were to be found. They also introduced her to some of the many ancient wrecks scattered along France's Mediterranean coast, where she first saw a ship through a mask. Throughout her life her drawing skills stood her in good stead and they were her entrée to field archaeology. In 1957 she joined the last season of Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho as technical draughtsman. She learned to draw plans of the underground Bronze Age tombs cut into the fractured rock and to follow the meticulous discipline of land archaeology. Thereafter she took up Kenyon's mantra, 'excavation, however well executed, without adequate publication is wanton destruction', and made it her own.

At Jericho Frost had observed that while many scholars were fascinated by the remains of ancient coastal structures, their interest stopped at the water's edge. Over the next eleven years and intermittently for the rest of her life she set about investigating the remains of the notoriously harbourless Levant coast, putting to use her new-found skills in plotting, mapping, and three-dimensional drawing to make sense of the jumbled masonry offshore. Results supported the idea of Bronze Age ‘proto-harbours’ and so pushed back by many centuries the boundaries of Levantine sea trade. Now based in Lebanon, she first tackled the well-researched ports of Tyre and Sidon. She made significant discoveries, particularly of the role of offshore islets as ancillary anchorages in antiquity, before upheavals in the Middle East interrupted her plans. By then her survey of submerged harbours encompassed eleven sites, from Byblos to Alexandria, and helped unravel the volume of trade and seafaring among the earliest civilizations.

While in Lebanon Frost first became interested in stone anchors, originally as a diagnostic tool in the search for lost harbours. Soon she was in full flight in their pursuit, finding them in the most unlikely places. A number were built into the Temple of Obelisks at Byblos. Decorative votive anchors emerged in Crete. As symbols of safety Bronze Age ships would carry a sacred stone anchor besides the practical ones. Where stone anchors acted as wreck markers, their weight could show ship size; their material could show geographic origin; and their number of holes indicated the seafloor type expected at anchorages en route, with one-holers suited to a rocky bottom, and two or more to sand. Frost put stone anchors on the archaeological map. With a third of her published papers devoted to them, she became the acknowledged world expert. She was at work on a global inventory when she died.

With continuing unrest in the Middle East, Frost shifted her base to Malta, where she investigated a Roman wreck in Mellieha Bay with a cargo of mortars (publishing her results in 1969). Later she bought a house overlooking the Grand Harbour which became her Mediterranean headquarters and second home. In 1959 she made an excursion to Turkey's south coast which was to have unexpected consequences. On arriving at Bodrum, then a remote coastal village used by sponge-divers, she found an excited American journalist–diver, Peter Throckmorton, with copper ingots and other objects he was sure dated from a Bronze Age shipwreck. He asked Frost to draw them. Armed with this evidence the pair succeeded in getting a small but talented international team together to do what had never before been attempted: to excavate an ancient wreck deep underwater to land archaeological standards. The Gelidonya Bronze Age site fulfilled all Frost's most exuberant hopes and became the outstanding achievement and benchmark for the 'nascent discipline' of underwater archaeology. This was Frost's phrase and in 1972 became the subtitle of a highly influential book which she co-ordinated and partly wrote for UNESCO, Underwater Archaeology: A Nascent Discipline.

Frost was above all celebrated for her excavation and recovery of the Punic ship of Marsala, the first war galley of antiquity to be discovered. In 1971 she led an expedition to follow up information from sand dredging of a wooden hull protruding through the sandy floor off the island of Motya, once a Carthaginian harbour, its waters known to be the site of a sea battle with the Romans. The find proved unique in several ways and the buried part was in prime condition after 2500 years. The craft appeared a new build and on a prefabricated plan, suggesting a mass-produced war fleet, with, clearly visible, the shipwright's marks to show where to position the planking. Over several seasons the hull was excavated, raised, and conserved to be reconstructed and put on display in a purpose-built museum in Marsala. Disappointment followed. Local corruption diverted the earmarked funds; the ship was left in pieces. Nevertheless, Frost described the ship fully in her final report, published in the Notizie degli Scavi Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 1981, probably her most important academic work.

A pioneer of underwater archaeology, Frost lost no opportunity to promote the ‘nascent discipline’ by any means open to her, popular, personal, or academic. In particular she took the initiative in launching The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1972), which was and remained the leading periodical in the field. She gained several international awards and in 1969 was made a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries by a panel headed by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, an accolade of which she was hugely proud. Her profound regret was the interruption of her submerged harbour surveys in the eastern Mediterranean. Her 'roots''Europe and the Levant', she wrote in Under the Mediterranean (130). In 1998, however, she was invited back to Lebanon by the Department of Antiquities to resume work in the marine zone to support Byblos as a World Heritage Site and to mark the reopening of the National Museum. In her contribution to the commemorative book A Decade of Archaeology and History in Lebanon (1995–2004), edited by Claude Doumet-Serhal (2004), she put to rest doubts that the third millennium bc Tower Temple was a proto-lighthouse, and fleshed out the hypothesis that in the Bronze Age large merchant ships and cedar-log transports anchored offshore Byblos with lighters ferrying out the cargo; she had explored a convenient reef-shelter 2 km out.

Style informed Frost's every aspect: handwriting, appearance, cuisine, interior decoration, furniture, travel, picnics, friendships. The daughter of her great friend, the fashion designer Thea Porter, considered that they bonded through their mutual love of poetry and picnics. Often overlooked was her attention to and flair in nurturing the young, perhaps illustrated by the title of an essay written in her memory: 'The charming Lady of the Punic warship: Lady Frost, Honor and Pride of underwater archaeology' (Archaeologia Maritima Mediterranea, 8 [2011], 213–8).Frost died at St John's Hospice, Westminster, on 12 September 2010 following a stroke. Her ashes were scattered off Byblos. In a sense she was back where she felt she belonged. In her will she bequeathed the proceeds of the art collection left for her lifetime by her guardian Wilfrid Evill to fund maritime research in the eastern Mediterranean. The collection included numerous paintings by Stanley Spencer, as well as works by William Roberts, Edward Burra, Patrick Heron, Graham Sutherland, and Lucian Freud. The £41 million obtained at auction by the collection in 2011 exceeded all expectations, and yielded about £30 million to establish the Honor Frost Foundation. The first batch of sixteen research grants, together amounting to £120,000, was awarded by the foundation in December 2012.


  • H. Frost, Under the Mediterranean: marine antiquities (1963)
  • P. Throckmorton, Shipwrecks and archaeology: the unharvested sea (1970)
  • The Times (20 Nov 2010)
  • International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 40/1 (2011), 201–3
  • Sotheby's sales catalogues, 2010–11
  • S. Bradford, ‘Collective spirit: Wilfrid Evill and the art he loved’, London Magazine (June–July 2011)
  • personal knowledge (2014)
  • private information (2014)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Honor Frost Foundation


  • coverage of PHAROS underwater search and survey, BBC television/ UNESCO, 1995


  • BL NSA, interview recordings


Wealth at Death

£17,771,587: probate, 22 March 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales