David O'Connor

Lila Acheson Wallace Professor Emeritus of Ancient Egyptian Art

PhD 1969, University of Cambridge, UK

My research interests in part focus on ancient Egyptian material culture in general and art and architecture in particular. This dimension of my work necessarily makes use of the abundant, but often challenging textual record left by the Egyptians. Of equal interest to me however is the civilization of ancient Nubia, lying upstream of Egypt and distinctively different in material culture from the latter and in the societal and productive processes that generated that culture.  These dual predilections on my part arose almost serendipitously. I began my Egyptological training at University College, London in the early sixties, but at the same time I was invited to serve as a field archaeologist in the great Nubian salvage campaign at that time. This situation was due to the fact that northern Nubia was to be transformed into a giant reservoir by a new dam at Aswan, on the frontier between the republics of Egypt and the Sudan. As a result, I learnt much more about ancient Nubia than most Egyptologists did, and my Ph. D. dissertation (Cambridge) was actually about Nubia, rather than Egypt.

These experiences greatly enlarged my perspectives on both Egyptian and Nubian culture. The recovery and analysis of the former followed traditional fieldwork strategies that were productive, but somewhat conventional in results. Ancient Nubians however were non-literate for much of their history and analysis of their material culture required a more anthropologically structured approach, and the deployment of processual and post-processual concepts and methodologies. In fact, I was predisposed to broad perspectives by earlier study of Neolithic and Bronze Age Cyprus, as a B.A. student at the University of Sydney. Most importantly, my research has persuaded me that throughout their long histories the relationships between Nubia and its African hinterlands; Egypt; and the Eastern Mediterranean were much more dynamic and complex than we often think they were.

My transfer from the University of Pennsylvania, and its Penn Museum, to the IFA in 1995 had a crucial impact on my approaches to both Egypt and Nubia.  At the University
 of Pennsylvania I had taught primarily material culture, typically divided up into various categories, such as ceramics, implements, seals, jewelry, etc; representational art was used mostly for illustrative purposes.  Once at the IFA, and in response to the expectations of its students, I focused more specifically on Egyptian art rather than artifacts. I emphasized aesthetics-the intended effect of the Egyptian artists and their patrons-and the symbolic-multiple expressions of the Egyptian worldview, and including not only temples and tombs, but also royal palaces and elite households. This was a liberating experience, evident in the fact that during this time my research, presentations and related publications were all related to insights inspired by my teaching. At the same time, I felt empowered to present the Nubian worldview and its products as a separate subject in its own right, more so than at Pennsylvania, although the Penn Museum has one of the finest Nubian collections in the U.S.

The interests outlined above are reflected in my publications.  At Penn, and subsequently at the IFA, I have focused on organizing a long term excavation project at Abydos, a site of great importance and archaeological richness in Southern Egypt. Abydos housed the burials and mortuary monuments of Egypt’s earliest rulers. In the IFA’s concession one such monument has survived as a standing structure, albeit one with urgent conservation and stabilization problems, which our project is amending. In addition, a fleet of 14 buried vessels have been located, intended to serve the afterlife needs of one of the rulers buried there.  Apart from specialist articles, I have published the first comprehensive treatment of Abydos (Abydos: Egypt’s Earliest Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris).

My interest in Nubia and its hinterlands also continues to be of major interest to me in research and teaching. Along with some colleagues, I emphasize that for millennia Egypt and Nubia were rivals for political and cultural dominion along the Nile, rather than comprising a superordinate power (Egypt) overwhelming a subordinate Nubia, the impression created by the claims of the former. Evidence of my interests here includes a book (Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa) and a co-edited book (Ancient Egypt in Africa, with Andrew Reid) which is the most comprehensive treatment available of the influence of ancient Egypt on other parts of Africa.  Also noteworthy is my monograph on the earliest Egyptian settlement yet discovered in Nubia (The Old Kingdom Town at Buhen).

Within Egypt, I am intrigued not only by the traditional Egyptological interest in politics and biographies (and I have co-edited three substantial volumes on Thutmosis III, Amenhotep III and Ramesses III), but by aspects of Egyptian society and material culture that have been less thoroughly explored. These aspects, which I have discussed in many articles, range from Egypt’s denuded, but still revealing royal palaces (compared to pyramids and temples these have been rarely studied) to issues regarding ancient Egyptian concepts and practices regarding sexuality.

Research interests

Ancient Egyptian art history and archaeology; Ancient Nubia art history and archaeology.

Sample Courses

Special Problems in Near Eastern Archaeology: the Rise of Civilization in Mesopotamia & Egypt
Egyptian Sculpture: its Historical Development and Art-Historical Interpretation
Ancient Egyptian Palaces: their Art, Architecture and Ideology
Egyptian Art Form and Function: the Expression of Sexuality
Manifestations of the Foreign in Egyptian Art and Archaeology

Selected Publications

The Old Kingdom town at Buhen. Edited by Patricia Spencer. Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 106.London; Egypt Exploration Society, 2014

Ramesses III: the life and times of Egypt’s last hero. Co-edited by Eric Cline and David O’Connor, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012

Abydos: Egypt’s  first pharaohs and the cult of Osiris. New aspects of antiquity. London; Thames and Hudson, 2009

O’Connor, David and S. Quirke, eds. Mysterious Lands. Encounters with Ancient Egypt. London: UCL Press, 2003.

O’Connor, David and A. Reid, eds. Ancient Egypt in Africa. Encounters with Ancient Egypt.London: UCL Press, 2003.

“Society and Individual in Early Egypt.” In Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States, edited by J. Richards and M. vanBuren.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

O’Connor and D. Silverman, eds. Ancient Egyptian Kingship. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Selected honors

Member, Board of Governors, American Research Center in Egypt, 2009-2015
Corresponding Member, German Archaeological Institute, Cairo, 1995 to present
President, American Research Center in Egypt, 1987-1990
Taiwan, Medal of Merit, 1985
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1982-1983