School of Arts and Sciences

Faculty Spotlight: Darlene Brooks Hedstrom

Each month, we interview an A&S faculty member for our undergraduate newsletter. In March 2023, we spoke to Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Associate Professor of Christian Studies.

Photo of JillianMeet Darlene Brooks Hedstrom

Departments/Programs: Classical and Early Mediterranean Studies, Near Eastern Judaic Studies, Religious Studies Program
Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Associate Professor of Christian Studies
Expertise: Archaeology and history of ancient and late antique Christianity. Material culture and religions of eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. Monasticism in Eastern Mediterranean World. Foodways in Late Antiquity.

Can you tell me a little about your academic background and journey to Brandeis?

I love puzzles. I enjoy my work as an archaeologist and historian because taking pieces of an image and trying to see how they fit together or not is very much like working on physical puzzles. The past is made of fragments we may assemble to make a story, knowing that some pieces may not always fit at the time. This is the approach I take toward archaeology and the study of ancient Christianity, specifically in the archaeology of early monastic communities in the eastern Mediterranean world.

I first began my career as an archaeology major at Wheaton College (IL) and then pursued an MA in New Testament Studies. While I was interested in the field of textual studies, my real interest was in the materiality of religion and the puzzle pieces of Christianity. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in History at Miami University with Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, who graduated from Brandeis’ doctoral program in Mediterranean Studies in 1963. Yamauchi transferred his Brandeis education to his students by training us in the textual and archaeological evidence of the past; to be a good historian, you needed to be comfortable with a wide array of evidence. As a result, I developed interests in many areas from dolphins in Etruscan tombs to pirates in the Bronze age to the nomadic communities of Herodotus. I eventually wrote my dissertation on the living quarters of monks in Egypt after discovering that there was an enormous corpus of evidence that was often unknown to most scholars. In many ways the Brandeis training I received from Ed allowed me to be comfortable with the margins and boundaries of fields in ways other scholars might not be.

I later taught for 20 years in the History department at Wittenberg University where I was chair and the Kenneth E. Wray Chair in the Humanities. During my time there I worked closely with students in archaeology and history. I developed a successful campus archaeology project and led archaeology projects in the town of Springfield, Ohio, and for the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project in Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt. In joining the Brandeis community, I serve as the Kraft-Hiatt Chair in Christian Studies. It is a position in which I am proud to be situated in both Classical and Early Mediterranean Studies and in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. I am also a member of the Program in Religious Studies, where I contribute courses to studying religious practices, traditions, and materiality. I am currently in my second year as chair of Classical and Early Mediterranean Studies. My recent courses include Reading the New Testament, Living and Dying in Roman and Byzantine Egypt, Cleopatra, and Denial and Desires: Gender and Sexuality in Early Christian Communities. Next year I look forward to teaching my course called Visions of Byzantium: The Medieval Roman Empire.

What aspects of the ancient and early Byzantine Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean world interest you the most?

As a scholar of late antique and medieval eastern Christianity, I am interested in the lived experiences of those who are found in the margins of our texts and sites. For example, as an archaeologist of monastic settlements, I examine kitchens and storage areas to explore how unknown monks lived their lives by preparing ingredients, gathering fuel, and cooking meals. What did monastic life look like from the domestic sphere of the kitchen or monastic table in contrast to the much more examined liturgical life of monks within churches and chapels? Similarly, one might read very famous stories of monks participating in all-night vigils and adopting ceaseless prayer. While one may study the devotional practices of these individuals and what authors say monks should be doing, I am curious about where monks slept when they were not praying. Where did they retire to? What were their mattresses made of? How did their daily work of weaving mats and spinning flax contribute to the objects that filled their monastic houses? Such questions have also led to more philosophical questions about how early Christians viewed possessions, why monks stole things, and how owning a basket made by someone else made it a holy relic. These examples look at the mundane stories of the past that are often entirely omitted from traditional monastic history and museum collections.

My interests also align with colleagues working in western Christian and Buddhist monasticism. I benefit from the work of others in the history of similar institutional communities and how to sort the idealized life from the lived life of monasticism. For example, my work in eastern Christian monasticism has paved the way for me to begin a new project with a colleague in the archaeology of a women’s community in Scotland. Although the materials and location may differ, my engagement with the larger issues about the materiality of monasticism and what archaeology can tell us is a contribution that will enrich colleagues working outside of the Mediterranean context.

What excites you about working as Senior Archaeological Consultant for the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project-North?

I am fortunate to work with a diverse team of colleagues in the field of late antique archaeology. The Yale team (YMAP-North) is studying the remains of a ninth and tenth-century monastic residence in Wadi al-Naturn, Egypt. The building is one of over 80 such structures as part of a small monastic village in a desert located between Alexandria and Cairo. In Egypt, monasteries could take on many forms from individual, two-room dwellings to large settlements that look more like towns. The work at the Monastery of John the Little allows the YMAP team to examine the residential quarters of monks whose names we may never know. The excavation of monastic residential quarters provides a unique opportunity to consider monks as brickmakers, architects, and cooks—in addition to their better-known roles as spiritual advisors and miracle workers. As the senior archaeological consultant for this project, I am writing a monograph on the architectural elements of Building 64, which includes features such as bone hooks, latrines, ovens, floor seating, and wall paintings. These structural elements provide raw materials for reconstructing how monks lived in one building as ascetics, decorated the spaces in which they lived, and carried out daily tasks like preparing meals.

What advice do you have for Brandeis students who might be interested in pursuing archeological studies?

I would encourage any student interested in archaeology to take one of the many courses offered in Classical and Early Mediterranean Studies and in Anthropology. Our departments are working together to offer courses in field methods, theory, and applied archaeology to demonstrate the various areas in which archaeologists work. Faculty in our two departments direct excavation projects that you may participate in, both in the field and in the lab. In my experience, students learn best when they are getting their hands dirty in the field. Archaeology is truly experiential learning at its best.

Finally, at Brandeis, students can also get hands-on experience (and internship credit!) in the Classical Artifacts Research Collection or CLARC. The collection includes more than 800 artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean world. Students can work with various objects and materials such as ceramics, coins, statuary, weapons, and jewelry. My colleague, Dr. Alexandra Ratzlaff, oversees the collection in CLARC for the Classical and Early Mediterranean Studies department.