By William Harms
Janet Johnson’s interest in Egypt has been a lifelong fascination.
“My father was interested in ancient Egypt, so I just read all the books he brought home from the library,” says Johnson, the Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor at the Oriental Institute.
She says as a seventh-grader, after reading a history textbook written by Oriental Institute founder James Henry Breasted, “I already knew I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I was lucky enough to have a guidance counselor in high school who had spent a summer in Chicago and knew of the O.I. and the program, and he suggested it would be a good place for me—and he was right,” she said.
The Oriental Institute was where Johnson as a graduate student first studied Demotic, a language used widely in Egypt from about 500 B.C. to about 500 A.D. In addition to unraveling the puzzle of a language no longer spoken, she became interested in documents that dealt with women and illuminated an area of study that had not received much attention.
“I realized how hugely rich was the volume of material written in the language,” says Johnson, AB’67, PhD’72. “You had legal documents, contracts, religious documents, scientific material, and stories and other kinds of literature.”