Mark Horton: maritime archaeologist, presenter and writer

Coast & Beyond presenter Mark Horton reveals why he always carries Worcestershire sauce, how he hates washing and why he fell in love with archaeology

7 mins

Mountain, ocean, desert, jungle – which are you?

Jungle. I've done lots of archaeological field work in the jungle and the tropics. I started off working in Panama, which is about as jungley as it gets. I've done lots of digs on the East African coast, which is very bushy, and I think it's better seeing archaeological finds in the thickest of jungle.

First travel experience?

I suppose going to Panama. I had just left Cambridge University to direct an archaeological excavation of an abandoned Scottish colony, in Darien on the Atlantic coast. We discovered these dead Scotsmen, their colony and all their artefacts literally sitting in this incredibly remote location right down on the Panama/Colombian frontier.

The excavation was an incredible success. It made me want to work in maritime archaeology and maritime trade and everything that goes with it. And this ultimately led to things like Coast and everything else.

The idea that the sea is this great unifier excited me, and I was an archaeologist  determined to go out and find the sites that unify it.

Favourite journey?

I think my favourite journey was travelling to the island of Pemba, which is located on the East African coast. I've also done lots of archaeological excavations there. I can remember going there in the 1980s – just before it all became spoilt with tourism. We travelled with a few colonial style tents and a land rover that was a decommissioned mobile cinema. We were riding around this landscape with these colonial tents made out of green canvas, camp beds that concertinaed together, hunting for archaeological finds on this remote Indian Ocean island. It was completely mad but brilliant.

Top five places worldwide?

I suppose I should say somewhere in Britain, which would be, somewhere coastal – the Isles of Scilly. It is absolutely full of archaeology of every period and it's a very remote and dramatic place.


The Bay Islands, Honduras – specifically the island of Utila.

I suppose to be totally different, the grasslands of Mongolia, which are definitely not on an island! I'm working there at the moment. It is just extraordinary and the views are breathtaking.

The island of St Lucia. We've done excavations there and of all the Caribbean islands, St Lucia must be the best.

Three items you always pack?

A good torch is absolutely essential. If nothing else the local power supplies are always collapsing. Also, it comes in handy if you get an ant inside your ear. Have you ever had that?

Well, it's the most painful things that can happen to any traveller. If you have an ant in your ear and you shine the torch down the ear canal the ant will turn around and come out again.

A short-wave radio – to make sure you know if there's about to be a revolution where you are going. That's always important!

A decent pair of boots. Again, they are absolutely essential.

Passport stamp are you proudest of?

That's easy enough – my Iranian stamp. I visited a couple of years ago. I didn't go in through Chābahār but through Bushehr where I was met with a red carpet from the aeroplane and rather than applying for a visa at the airport one's passport was taken away from you and stamped personally by the Governor.

Passport stamp you'd most like to have?

That's an interesting one... I think Somalia would be good. It's a place that I've always really wanted to go to, but is impossible to go to for lots of different reasons. Somalia is a place I've always yearned to get to as its archaeology is unknown. Completely unknown and just waiting to be discovered.

Guilty travel pleasure?

I try to take a small bottle of Worcester sauce with me when I travel. Lea & Perrins – it makes some of the food taste nicer. The other thing is ground up pepper, as it disguises the little creatures that sometimes crawl into one's food.

Window or aisle?

Window. I spend most of my flights looking out of the window. I'm very disappointed when it's cloudy. I take a GPS with me so if I see anything interesting I can mark it and look it up later to find out what it was.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

I don't have one. Travelling companions are boring and they get in the way!

Best meal on the road?

I think it's fair to say that street food, in general, is always the best thing to eat. I hate restaurants – they're overpriced and they're generally infected – you'll always get food poisoning if you eat in a restaurant. Whereas if you eat on the street you're better off and healthier really.

In Zanzibar, every night, there is an extraordinary place where all the street food sellers congregate and sell their street food – kebabs, fish, sugar cane juice with ginger and lemon in it – that's one of my favourite places to eat.

Most surprising place?

Well I suppose Egypt really. There is a broad history that goes back to the Pharaohs, but it is also Islamic, Christian, Roman, Greek and everything else. There's no other place in the world quite like it... That's got those layers of history in it.

Most disappointing place?

I haven't been disappointed in anywhere really. Travel is about constantly finding new places and discovering them. Even though somewhere may be disappointing it doesn't matter, its all a part of the discovery.

Where do you NOT want to go?

No, I'm a warm person – warm and wet. I'm not very good in the cold, so six months, mid-winter in Antarctica probably wouldn't be that exciting... But I don't know, I've never really been to many cold places so maybe I'd love it?

Who/what inspired you to travel?

I suppose it was my love of ancient things; of archaeology; of past human cultures; of ancient civilisations and it's the urge to discover more about them which is the motivating factor.

What do you listen to on the road?

Baroque music – the earlier the better.

What do you read?

A novel by PJ Woodhouse, because it is so totally different to where I am going. When I travel, I tend to read are things that are very distant or different to where I'm travelling.

Is there a person you met while you were travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity?

I think everywhere that I've been I tend to travel amongst a primitive culture and I think it's meeting people who have a relatively simple outlook on the world – they are the people who feel life is actually worth living.

What's the most impressive/useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

Oh god! That's a difficult one... (Chuckles) I should give you a bit of Swahili or something. The one I need the most is 'let's go and dig a bit faster shall we?'

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

I don't wash enough. Washing is for wimps.

When or where in your travels have you been happiest?

I think I'm probably happiest by myself, with a lot of hard-working local men on an archaeological site working alongside them and just doing archaeology. It would be in East Africa, sitting there with my workmen, all by myself, digging up stuff!

Mark Horton presents the BBC's Coast & Beyond series and has worked as an archaeologist 'digging up stuff' across the world.

We have five copies of the newly released Coast & Beyond, Series 6 to give away. Answer one simple question for your chance to win... More

More like this

If you enjoy Coast & Beyond you'll love this: Top 10 wild spots in Britain | Inspire me... More

...And this: 10 favourite coastlines around the world | Inspire me... More

Check out more World According To interviews, where we talk to the travel... More

Dr Pat Garrod: Author. Doctor. Adventurer | Blogs... More

Eamonn Gearon: Arabist, historian and author | Blogs... More

Related Articles