Honor Frost: Diver who pioneered the discipline of underwater archaeology

The end of an era – this was the reaction on hearing of the unexpected death of Honor Frost: the end of the heroic age of pioneering aqualung diving and its impact on archaeology.

Honor Frost effectively introduced underwater archaeology as a discipline to this country after learning free diving while convalescing on the Riviera from French divers who had helped with the development of the aqualung during the Second World War and introduced her to ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean. She considered this a balanced activity: "si le plongeur savait; si l'archeologue pouvait" ["If the diver understands; if the archaeologist is able]. Frost combined the two; force of personality did the rest.

Her grandfather was a senior army man on loan as an adviser to the Sultan of Turkey, and her parents were married in Smyrna in Edwardian splendour. The idyll ended before she was born: the Sultan was deposed and her family moved to Cyprus. There, Honor grew up by the sea, going on to school in Switzerland and developing a love of ballet. She was still a girl when her parents died and she acquired a guardian, Wilfred Evill, a London solicitor. She was a contemporary of Lucien Freud at the Central School of Art, moving on later to the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. Her draughtsmanship was to stand her in good stead, and was her entrée to field archaeology. She made her first dive at a party in Wimbledon, going down a well with a garden hose for her air supply.

Back in the Eastern Mediterranean and now a proficient diver, with her apprenticeship at Cannes divers club behind her, she turned her attention to the ancient ports and anchorages along the Levantine coast. These had long engrossed scholars but only as far as the water's edge: earthquakes, erosion and sea-level change had submerged other remains. Over several years she surveyed and drew 11 such sites, from Byblos to Alexandria, and the results proved revelatory, helping to unravel the volume of trade and seafaring among the earliest civilisations. The study of submerged harbours worldwide is now a thriving industry.

In 1957 Frost gained archaeological experience on a land dig. The archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon was completing a four-year excavation of Jericho and Frost joined the expedition as technical draughtsman. Thereafter she regularly quoted the Kenyon mantra: "excavation, however well executed, without adequate publication is wanton destruction". For the rest of her life she meticulously lived up to this creed, producing over 70 papers, apart from books and official reports.

It was while at work on the coastal site of Byblos that Frost became fascinated by stone anchors. They were ubiquitous in antiquity and fishermen in some parts of the world still use them.

Frost swiftly saw their potential as diagnostic tools: they can help date underwater sites, while their weight indicates the size of craft; their geological origin points to where the ship was built and equipped, or its ports of call; groups of anchors found offshore or by an exposed headland might indicate a wreck where a ship had sheltered or come to grief (up to 12 anchors were carried to secure a vessel at both ends in a heavy "blow"). Anchors have also always had a symbolic significance. Frost found that in the Bronze Age, stone anchors were assembled in temples and dedicated to the gods. They were offered at Delphi, while the Temple of Obelisks at Byblos held six made from an unusual brownish limestone, with others built into the walls.

Frost's two most momentous contributions took place within a decade of each other in the Mediterranean. By the late 1950s she never travelled without her bottle (aqualung cylinder); when she was in Turkey travelling by bus, she kept it under a smock to give her a pregnant profile (Turkish officials were deeply suspicious of foreign gadgets they typically assumed to be bombs). 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 team together to do what had never been done before: excavate an ancient wreck underwater to international land archaeological standards.

The Gelidonya Bronze Age site fulfilled all her 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 title of a highly influential book commissioned by Unesco.

Frost will always be known 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 dredgers of a wooden hull protruding through the sandy floor off the island of Motya – a typical case of shifting sands revealing a long-buried wreck. And so it turned out. The find proved unique in several ways and the buried part was in brilliant condition. 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 lying about in pieces. The project lives through Honor's definitive publication in 1981, her most important academic work.

Throughout she had been no slouch in performing public duties in promoting marine archaeology (and how not to do it), inspiring aspirants, officials and academics alike. She helped found (1963) the Council for Nautical Archaeology, an active focus group which generated a government Wreck Committee leading after a bumpy ride to the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973). For years she was on the council of the SNR the body that had saved the HMS Victory and established the National Maritime Museum. She played a key role in starting IJNA (International Journal of Nautical Archaeology) and finding a sympathetic publisher. Three of us met weekly in her elegant Georgian house planning the first issue which was well received when it appeared in 1972, soon proved indispensable and is now in its 40th year.

Despite her massive achievement there is the sense that she was only fully appreciated abroad. Academically she felt she was an outsider and was very conscious of not having a university degree. She was deeply proud of being made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1969. In a letter a year or two ago she wrote, "I am now back where I belong – marine surveying off Byblos" – but the wistful note cannot be disguised. Yet Honor's style never left her. Despite her 93 years she carried herself like a princess and appeared the way she always had, not shrunk or bent and seemingly still an ash blond. Her energy seemed not to flag (though increasingly impatient of modern gizmos) she claimed she had "broken every bone in my body" but continued to dive and dash about – just off to Sicily, Malta, Venice, Goa... and always ready with an anecdote amid gusts of laughter.

The end of an era, indeed.

Honor Frost, diver and archaeologist: born Nicosia, Cyprus 28 October 1917; married (separated); died 12 September 2010.

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