David O’Connor: A great Egyptologist

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 20 Jun 2023

Zahi Hawass remembers the life and contributions of leading Egyptologist David O’Connor

David O Connor
David O Connor


This year, the field of Egyptology lost a great and unique Egyptologist. I do not think that our field will ever see another person like him. He was a splendid teacher who taught innovative courses that you would never normally see at any university in the United States or Europe. 

He was also a modest man; he helped all his students equally, and this is why all of his students loved him. His students have great jobs everywhere, and all of them know that they owe their success to the teaching of this man, David O’Connor. I believe that his name will always be remembered because his students honour it.

I myself can never forget him. He is always in front of me. I was in an interview last week on Egyptian TV and the presenter asked me who was the person to whom I owed my success. I said David O’Connor, and then I explained the reason.

When I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, he treated me as just another student. He did not care that I was an Egyptian official and chief inspector of the Pyramids at Giza. This is why I stayed to learn from him for seven years. Other Egyptian students who studied in the US stayed for four years and then went back to Egypt, but they did not subsequently produce anything because they did not really learn Egyptology but just took a degree and then went home. 

We all, as his students, met at the University Museum in Philadelphia to hold an event in his memory. Janet Richards, one of his students, arranged the memorial for O’Connor. 10 June saw a day-long conference on Abydos, the site closest to his heart, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE), from 9 to 5 pm at the Rainey Auditorium at the University Museum. 

On Sunday 11 June, there was a memorial service for O’Connor at 11:30am at the Widener Hall at the University Museum. Peter Lacovara and Joe Wagner helped plan the service. The people most important to O’Connor’s heart attended, especially Gulbun O’Connor, his wife, who stood beside him throughout their lives. I was so happy to see the two of them during the last ARCE conference in Tucson, Arizona. His beloved daughters Aisha and Katie was also involved in making O’Connor’s name remembered forever. 

I like what his students say about the other talents that O’Connor had that people do not know about. Joe Wagner said that all of O’Connor’s field notebooks are preserved in the University of Pensylvania archives, and that they are full of O’Connor’s doodles and caricatures. He loved to draw — Janet Richards has told me that O’Connor did watercolours at Abydos and elsewhere. Samples of this work will were put on display at the celebration. As all of us say that there will never be another person like O’Connor.

Now let me leave his memorial service aside to explain how I met this great man and how he became the most important person in my life. I was so happy to dedicate one of my books to him.

O’Connor was unique. Originally from Australia, he received a postgraduate diploma in Egyptology in 1962 from University College London. He then studied for his doctorate at Cambridge. He was always honest, a good excavator, and a true leader. I learned a lot from him.

I first met O’Connor in 1974, when he came to pick me up from Malawi in Minya, where as a young man I was serving as an inspector of antiquities at Tuna Al-Gabal. I went to work with him at Malkata on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, where the ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep III built his palace and the lake used for recreation and ritual by his great wife Tiye. 

Then in 1979, I spent three months with the Pennsylvania-Yale University expedition at Abydos, supervised by O’Connor and William Kelly Simpson. At Abydos, O’Connor used to rest after a long day’s work and have a beer. After dinner, we would talk about politics with the young American archaeologists. I was very impressed by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but when we began arguing O’Connor would always say, “no politics — we are at a dig house, not a congress.” 

O’Connor and William Kelly Simpson invited me to Philadelphia, Boston, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and I stayed for a while at O’Connor’s house in Philadelphia. When I went to the University of Pennsylvania as a Fulbright scholar in 1980, he was the advisor for my doctoral dissertation and became a lifelong friend.

The first four of the seven years I spent at the university were fundamental to building my foundations as an Egyptologist. O’Connor was an excellent teacher. He taught us to understand the context of artifacts; how we can identify their origin; and how to date Pharaonic cemeteries based on comparative evidence. 

One of the great moments for me was when I had independent studies with him. I believe I took one course on Pharaonic history — I studied history so that I could learn to use literature or textual evidence to reconstruct the past. I learned a lot from his discussions with me and his opinions on the various topics we covered during this course. O’Connor also suggested that I take courses in anthropology.

During the writing of my doctorate, he was my main advisor and I did learn a lot from him. I selected Giza as the topic of my doctoral dissertation. The most important aspect of my time in Pennsylvania was that O’Connor treated me as a student so I could learn, rather than as an important official who could learn nothing from him. He was a happy man, and we knew he was approaching when we heard him whistling.

I was 40 years old when I returned to Egypt. I used to say that I left Egypt with black hair and when I returned it was grey because of all the hard work in the interim. O’Connor remained my advisor, and I would often seek his advice. Whenever we could, we would meet in Philadelphia or New York and have lunch together.

I like to say that O’Connor re-discovered Abydos, the sacred site of Osiris, where he worked for many decades. Among many other things he excavated an important temple of Ramses II; as part of the division of finds, 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 at the University of Pennsylvania. 

O’Connor also worked in the cenotaph zone where the ancient Egyptians set up monuments to honour Osiris, but his work in recent years focused mainly on the Early Dynastic funerary enclosures.

O’Connor left Pennsylvania to take up a prestigious position as a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. NYU was extremely fortunate to have him. He always taught Egyptology within its archaeological context, about which he was extraordinarily knowledgeable. He was a generous mentor: many of his students now have their own concessions at Abydos. One of the other things that he should have been proud of is that many of his students have important jobs, perhaps even the best jobs in the field.

One day about 15 years ago I spoke with Janet Richards about arranging for a Festschrift, a collection of essays dedicated to O’Connor. It would include articles submitted by colleagues and students in his honour. We published two volumes of some of the best recent articles on Egyptology. The topics were varied, but of course there were a number of articles about the site of Abydos where he gave his students opportunities to excavate and continued to guide them.

The two-volume Festschrift was published by the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. The auditorium was full for the launch. Although his two beautiful daughters, Aisha and Katie, and his precious grandson could not come, his wife, Gulbun, attended this important moment in their lives. 

Janice Kamrin, another of his former students, introduced the event. Janet Richards read a lengthy 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 almost in tears. I spoke about O’Connor as a teacher, his relationships with students, his teaching abilities, and his modesty. I offered him the two volumes and he accepted gracefully. In his speech he remembered the workmen who had helped him, particularly the reis (boss) of his team.

O’Connor was an ideal role model for all of us, as compared with those who only help themselves. As one of his former students, I owe him a great deal. The two volumes dedicated to him will engrave his place in history, and the memorial we held will make his name live forever.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: