The field of Egyptology recently lost one of its greatest scholars. David O’Connor was an excellent excavator, teacher, and scholar. I do not think that we have another person like him in our field today. He was modest, honest, loyal, and helpful to his students. I think that we as Egyptians can see that he dedicated every minute of his life to his chosen profession.
The story of O’Connor can be explained through my eyes as his student. When anyone asks me to whom I owe my success, I say David O’Connor. It is because of him that I became an Egyptologist that people respect. Before I tell you the story of this great man, let me introduce him to you.
O’Connor was born in Sydney, Australia. He had been interested in archaeology and ancient history since he was a child. Originally, he wanted to study the ancient civilisation of Babylon. He even built a replica of this ancient city out of bricks in a field near his home and then recreated the fall of Babylon by setting the whole thing on fire.
O’Connor received his BA degree in Archaeology from the University of Sydney in 1959. While completing this degree, he focused on the ancient history of Cyprus but also had a broader interest in the history of the ancient Near East in general. The University of Sydney did not have a Near Eastern Studies Department, so O’Connor moved to the UK to continue his studies, where he earned a degree in Egyptology from University College London in 1962.
While studying in London, he also went on his first excavation, working under Walter B Emery in Sudan as part of the Nubian Salvage Campaign. During this work, he began to focus on the interactions between ancient Near Eastern cultures. O’Connor would go on to receive his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1969.
From 1964 to 1995, he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, as well as curator in charge of the Egyptian collection at the University Museum. O’Connor always said he preferred to educate with artefacts, and he used the collection at the museum to aid in teaching his graduate students. He loved to contribute to popular history, including by appearing on the US TV show What in the World? and the US TV channel PBS’s Egypt’s Golden Empire. He loved to look at the field from multiple perspectives, combining the study of art, history, and anthropology.
The two main sites that O’Connor excavated in Egypt were Abydos and Malqata. His work at Abydos began in 1967 as part of a joint Penn-Yale University expedition, and he continued to be involved in the site until his death. Because of the 1973 War, O’Connor was temporarily unable to work at Abydos, but instead worked at Malqata near Thebes with his colleague Barry Kemp, studying the artificial lake at the ancient palace and pottery from the site.
He left the University of Pennsylvania in 1995 but retained the role of emeritus professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and Emeritus Curator in the Egyptian Section of the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum. After 1995, he worked at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University as the Lila Acheson Wallace professor of Ancient Egyptian Art. He also continued to work at Abydos, publishing findings about it and other works on ancient Egyptian art and the interactions of ancient Egypt with other civilisations.
He retired in 2017 but continued to mentor students, and he held the position at New York University until he died.
He was devoted to all his students, and it is sad that he will no longer be able to be a mentor. His last students were Briana Jackson, who graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University with a doctorate in Egyptian art and archaeology in May 2021, and Sophie Kroft, who is currently finishing her dissertation.
Mary Ann Pouls Wegner, one of his many former students, said that he was very supportive of students who wanted to work in the field. It was O’Connor’s support of her work that had allowed her to find a tenure-track position in Egyptology, she said.
“He supported future generations of researchers, and now some of us are in positions where we are able to do the same. His legacy is also all of the people that he inspired and helped along the way, and a lot of us have gone on to try to emulate that in our own work.”
O’Connor met his wife Gulbun while she was earning her doctorate in anthropology. The two studied different regions, O’Connor working in Egypt, while Gulbun worked in the Solomon Islands, but they still found time to help each other in their work. Gulbun even occasionally joined him at his excavations in Abydos.
O’Connor died due to complications related to Parkinson’s Disease, which he was diagnosed with last spring. His students, family, and friends will deeply miss him. He leaves behind his wife Gulbun, two daughters, and his grandchildren.
MEMORIES: As one of his students myself, I saw O’Connor as a great man, and my relationship with him began in 1969.
I was sitting in my office at Tuna Al-Gabal, a famous Greek and Roman site near Mallawi in Minya where I was the inspector. A Land Rover stopped nearby, and a nice young man with a beard came up to introduce himself as David O’Connor. He said that he had come to pick me up because the Antiquities Department had assigned me as the inspector who would accompany the Yale-Pennsylvania expedition at the site of Abydos. O’Connor was the head of the expedition, along with co-director William Kelly Simpson of Yale University.
We stayed at a house that O’Connor himself had built at the site. He was loved by all the workmen, who used to sing for him. There were many young Americans on the expedition, and we used to talk about politics after dinner. But O’Connor stood up one day and said, “we are here to work. No politics.” He was able with his brilliant and dedicated personality to become one of the greatest excavators of his time, and the discoveries he made at Abydos tell us a great deal about this foundational site.
I could see how kind a man he was when we met “Um Seti” and he invited her many times to have dinner with us. I found out later that he used to give her money to support her. Um Seti (the mother of Seti) was an Englishwoman who believed in reincarnation and thought she was the mother of king Seti I of the 19th Dynasty who built the beautiful temple at Abydos. She had originally come from England to work at the Pyramids and then moved to Abydos.
I lived for three months at Abydos at this time, when O’Connor could not be accused of making a single mistake. He loved Egypt and his work. He was a generous man who treated the workmen kindly and was helpful to everyone. When we closed the season, he left for the US and I returned to the office at the site of Tuna al-Gebel.
Later, William Kelly Simpson invited me to Boston and Philadelphia. When I went to Pennsylvania, O’Connor refused to put me in a hotel but insisted on hosting me in his own home. I felt like I was at home and met his wife Gulbun, a wonderful lady that O’Connor worshipped. They were a lovely couple and had two daughters, Aisha and Katie.
I then visited the Pennsylvania University Museum in 1977 to give a lecture, and when O’Connor moved from Abydos to work at Malqata with Barry Kemp, I accompanied the expedition as an inspector. During that time, I continued to learn a lot from O’Connor. I had earned a degree in Egyptology from Cairo University, and many foreign schools offered me a place to study for my doctorate. However, I did not want to take any of their offers.
I wanted to be loyal to the man who had first offered me a place to study. I could have gone to some countries where I could have earned a doctorate in less time, but I wanted to really learn during my studies.
STUDIES: As a result, I applied to the Fulbright Foundation and was able to get a fellowship for two years, with which I applied to many universities in the US. I was accepted at three of them, and one was the University of Pennsylvania. I decided to go to Penn because of O’Connor.
I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in October 1980. When I met O’Connor, I told him I was there to learn and that I did not need any favours from anyone. I wanted to be an Egyptology student like his other students. O’Connor smiled.
I stayed for seven years at Penn, where I found that O’Connor taught archaeology through courses that you could not find at any other university in the US. Most professors at the time focused on teaching art and archaeology. But at Penn, you took this course from an art historian and not from an archaeologist before O’Connor took it over.
The unique courses that O’Connor taught us included the identification of objects such as pottery, scarabs, ushabtis, and so on, He was an excellent teacher. He also taught us about the identification of cemeteries using relative and absolute chronology and taught courses on society and history. I did some independent studies with him that were incredibly enlightening.
However, the best and most useful advice that I received from O’Connor, who was my main advisor at the time, was to take courses in anthropology and to minor in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. I learned a great deal from this unique scholar.
When I had finished my courses and passed my comprehensive exams, I began to search for a topic for my doctorate and selected Giza as the topic of my dissertation. The most important aspect of my time as a graduate student in Pennsylvania was that O’Connor treated me as a student so that I could truly learn, rather than as an official who could not learn anything from him.
At the museum in Pennsylvania, we used to know that O’Connor had arrived when we heard him whistling in the corridor. He was always happy to meet me at any time and guide me with useful directions and honest opinions. During these four years, O’Connor also used to invite me and my family for dinner at his home. We always received great hospitality from him and Gulbun.
When I left Philadelphia and came back to Egypt where I became the director of the Pyramids site in Giza, O’Connor used to come to visit Egypt and I told him that my home was his home. He stayed with me as I had once stayed with him.
CAREER: O’Connor rediscovered the sacred site of Abydos, where he worked for many decades, and he wrote the most important book about the site.
One of the most unique things about him was his writing style. I do not think that anyone in Egyptology can match his ability to write clearly and eloquently, or the breadth of his thinking about ancient Egyptian society and culture.
Among his major discoveries was an important temple of Ramses II. As part of the division of the finds made here, and as a special gift in appreciation of his work, the Egyptian authorities gave a large and beautiful head of Ramses II to the museum where O’Connor worked.
O’Connor also did a great deal of work in the cenotaph zone where the ancient Egyptians set up monuments to honour the god Osiris. His work in recent years focused mainly on Early Dynastic funerary enclosures. Another very important thing about him was his work as a curator of the Egyptian Department at the Pennsylvania Museum, where he observed a scrupulous standard of ethics.
O’Connor eventually left Penn to take a prestigious position as a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, which was extremely fortunate to have him. He continued to teach Egyptology in its archaeological context, about which he was extraordinarily knowledgeable. As always, he was a generous mentor.
Many of his students now have their own expeditions at Abydos, something that is almost unique, as it is rare to see anyone doing something like that for their students. More than three of his students are working at Abydos today. One of the other things that O’Connor should be proud of is the fact that all of his students have important jobs, perhaps even the best jobs in the field.
I remember speaking with Janet Richards, another of his former students, about arranging a festschrift for O’Connor, or a collection of essays in his honour. This would include articles submitted by his colleagues and students. We collected two volumes of some of the best articles in Egyptology all dedicated to him, and these were published by the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. The topics ranged widely, but of course there were a number of articles about the site of Abydos, where O’Connor gave his students opportunities to excavate and continued to guide them.
When we published the festschrift, we held a lunch in O’Connor’s honour. The auditorium at the event was full. Although his two beautiful daughters, Aisha and Katie, and his precious grandson could not attend the occasion, his wife Gulbun came for this very important moment. Janice Kamrin, one of O’Connor’s former students, introduced the event, and Janet Richards read a long list of his many distinguished achievements. Egyptologists Tony Mills and Betsy Bryan spoke about their close professional and personal relationships with him.
I gave one of the most difficult speeches that I have ever delivered because I was in tears as I did so. I spoke about O’Connor as a mentor, his relationship with students, his teaching abilities, and his modesty. I offered him the two newly published volumes of his festschrift, and he accepted them gracefully. In his speech, he then remembered not just his students and his peers, but also the workmen at Abydos who had helped him, particularly the reis (boss) of the team. The two volumes dedicated to him will engrave his name in history.
O’Connor was a role model for all of us. As one of his former students, I owe him a great deal. I have given many interviews on Egyptian TV and in the foreign media, and the journalists always ask me about the people I owe for my career and who helped me to become successful. I always say that there were three people to whom I owe my success. The first was my father, the second was a teacher during my early studies, and the third was O’Connor.
I wrote about him that his name was written in gold in the hearts of his students. I always called him when I travelled to the US. However, in August this year I called him many times without receiving an answer. I knew deep down that I would not see him again. When Janet Richards called me to tell me the terrible news of his death, I cried because I felt that a part of me was gone.
David O’Connor’s name will never be forgotten in the field of Egyptology and by all those that knew him.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.