Dominic Montserrat

Egyptologist who lived on borrowed time
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The Independent Online

Dominic Montserrat was an extraordinarily gifted Egyptologist, who combined his technical work as a scholar with an immense talent for introducing his subject to a wider audience.

Dominic Alexander Sebastian Montserrat, Egyptologist: born Slough, Berkshire 2 January 1964; Lecturer in Classics, Warwick University 1992-99; Project Development Officer (Classics), Open University 1999-2002; died London 23 September 2004.

Dominic Montserrat was an extraordinarily gifted Egyptologist, who combined his technical work as a scholar with an immense talent for introducing his subject to a wider audience.

He was born in Slough in 1964. The most significant facts about him were apparent from the first: he was born a haemophiliac, he was unusually intelligent, and quite remarkably brave. His parents had the rewarding but unenviable task of raising a child who was not only outstandingly gifted but fiercely independent and of extreme physical vulnerability; and his own achievement was in the context of a constant and heroic struggle against debilitating pain.

Montserrat studied Egyptology at Durham University, and subsequently took an MA and PhD in Classics from University College London, specialising in Egyptian, Coptic, Greek and papyrology, to which he added a variety of modern languages, including Arabic. His first job, from 1992, was as a lecturer in Classics at Warwick University, where he made of his office, a plain box in a bleak modern building, a peculiar Aladdin's cave, littered with antiquities and mysterious Eastern objects, invariably perfumed with exotic cologne and, despite university regulations, tobacco. There he presided, unorthodox and interesting, a fin-de-siècle dandy in beautiful clothes. His first book was Sex and Society in Greco-Roman Egypt (1996), subtle, well-written, wide-ranging and bizarre.

His gift for involving people in the subjects which fascinated him, combined with his increasingly unreliable health, led him to resign from Warwick and move in 1999 to the Open University, where he worked with the research group developing a course on "Art and Society in the Later Roman Empire". This allowed him to continue professionally without having to meet a regular schedule of undergraduate contact-hours.

Like many other haemophiliacs, his health was inadvertently undermined by unscreened blood transfusions, and he contracted Hepatitis B and C. It became clear to him gradually that he was living on borrowed time and, when he felt he could not continue even in the relatively unstructured environment of the Open University, he resigned.

In his brief working life, he was none the less amazingly productive. As well as his technical works on papyrology, which are of the first quality, he wrote a number of radio plays and other works exploring such topics as mediumistic or fantastic evocations of ancient Egypt, and in 2000-01 curated a very successful exhibition, "Digging for Dreams", for the UCL Petrie Museum.

His second book, on the "heretic pharaoh", Akhenaten: history, fantasy, and ancient Egypt (2000), also explores these themes. His last major project, due for broadcast later this year, was a series of documentaries for Channel Five, co-presented with Miriam Cooke, The Egypt Detectives, not merely a popularising rehash of the already-known, but a series which presents genuine and important discoveries in Egyptian archaeology.

With all that, he packed in an extraordinary amount of life into a very few years - he travelled widely and adventurously, particularly in the Middle East, with great bravery, considering the risks which travel posed for a man for whom a bruise could lead to months of continuous pain. He was a bon viveur and an excellent cook, he collected art and antiquities, and sometimes sold them, never, I firmly believe, at a loss.

But he was not any kind of a plaster saint. Free of self-pity himself, he had no toleration of self-pity in others, and he could, on occasions, be devastating. On the one hand, his friends were showered with gifts and, more significantly, for a man who knew his own time to be short, he lavished whole weeks on the projects of others. On the other, his wit, an effortless by-product of his general inventiveness, often had an undertone of melancholy, and could be acid.

His intense sense of privacy led him to keep his friends in separate compartments. It was only at his 40th birthday party, by which time he was aware that he had very little future to look forward to, that he allowed them to meet.

Jane Stevenson