One of my latest Places in Your Neighborhood trips took me to Izbet Sartah. Located on the edge of a nondescript neighborhood of Rosh HaAyin, Izbet Sartah offers a little with a lot behind it. If you venture to the site yourself with no preparation, you may be disappointed. Like many ancient sites in Israel, you will see low stone walls – clearly the outline of a building. Around the perimeter of the site, if you have a good sense of imagination, you will see the faint suggestion of a city wall.
If you have the back story, though, the site comes to life. There are three main stories to be told at Izbet Sartah: the first has to do with Izbet Sartah in the geographic sense, the second fleshing out the site’s religious significance, and the third as an example par excellance of the development of domestic architecture in ancient times.
Until man settled in cities, we have little evidence of domiciles in archaeology. Here, at Izbet Sartah we have a unique glimpse of the archaeology of homes from the time period of the entry of the Children of Israel to the Land of Israel. Prof. Finkelstein and Prof. Cochavi excavated the site in the 1980’s and discovered at Izbet Sartah 3 layers. In archaeology, the upper layer is designated as Layer I and is the most recent, since at the beginning of the excavation there is not always a clear idea of how many layers are present. At Izbet Sartah, Layer I is from the 10th century B.C.E. That means that the most recent residents of this town lived there 3000 years ago; and so, preserved beautifully ancient housing styles and architectures. Layer II is from the 10th and 11th century B.C.E. (separated from Layer I by only a few decades). Layer III, the oldest layer, dates from the 13th century B.C.E. and corresponds roughly to the time period of the Children of Israel’s arrival to the land of Israel.
Let’s start with the oldest layer – Layer III. The homes found in this layer were very simple. They are built using the settlement’s outer ovoid wall as their back walls as well. The settlement follows the contours of the hilltop and the homes hug this wall. One is reminded of wagon trains that went to settle the West in the United States which circled in on themselves to protect the pioneers from any outside danger. The center of the settlement is left open. The homes are very small (5×7 m), only large enough for sleeping. What this means is that almost all of daily life happens in the public sphere. Sense of community would be very high in such settlements, similar to what the Children of Israel must have experienced in the desert. And it was probably precisely this familiarity which led Izbet Sartah to be initially built along this plan.
Layer II – 200 years after Layer III – shows vastly different home architecture. In this time period, the time of the Judges, Israelites lived in what is known as the 4-roomed house. This house has an entry into a series of 3 parallel rooms, divided one from the next by either pillars or walls. The central room was usually an open courtyard, with the two side rooms being used for animals or other household industries, such as spinning, grinding, etc. The last room is the most interior space and runs at the base of the other three rooms. This room was used for the sleeping quarters and the personal space of the family. At Izbet Sartah, this layer was built by a systematic clearing of the underlayer (Layer III), indicating that there was some centralized city planning.
The overall settlement from Layer I is much less developed and shows that the population waned at this time. The large house discovered belonging to this layer, however, shows how domestic architecture has changed. The largest 4-roomed house from this time period is much larger than the other homes from this layer, showing a large disparity in the socioeconomic/social status of the towns residents. The basic 4-room layout in this large central dwelling has been altered so that several of the basic rooms have been divided. We have evidence of this in both the parallel rooms as well as the private familial space. Several “additions” of storage areas have also been added to the outside of the home, showing the accumulation of goods, possibly.
If the clothes make the man, then maybe homes make the community. It is amazing how much you can learn about a place and its residents by examining the architecture of its dwellings!