The “four-room house” refers to a type of private dwelling that seems to have first appeared in the hills of Samaria and Judah in Iron Age I (12th and 11th centuries B.C.E.) and remained in use throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah right up to their demise in the late eighth and early sixth centuries, respectively. The name “four-room” is a little misleading, because there are many variations on the general plan, and not all of these have exactly four rooms. The basic plan of these structures is that of a rectangle, usually with one entrance. A single closed-off room runs along the entire width of the back end, and the rest subdivided into a central corridor (if roofed) or small courtyard (if not roofed—in most cases we just don’t know), with a room on either side. Often, one of the side rooms will be closed in by a wall, while the other will be separated from the central corridor by a row of pillars. The general assumption is that the back room was used by the inhabitants for sleeping, the side rooms were used for various household functions, such as cooking, dyeing fabric and storage, and the central space was used for passage and may have housed small animals. However, we often find the various spaces subdivided in different ways, apparently to accommodate families of different sizes and status. In some cases, there is evidence that they had a second story. Such structures have been found in both small villages and in major cities. In some urban examples (e.g., at Beer-Sheva), the back rooms of the houses make up the “casemates” of the city wall. In other places (e.g., at Hazor and Tell Beit Mirsim), the same plan was used for public structures as well as private dwellings.
Houses of this type were first noticed in early 20th century excavations at Jericho, Beth-Shemesh, Megiddo, Lachish and Tell Beit Mirsim, but it was only in the 1950s that archaeologists had enough data to classify them as a specific type that could be attributed to Iron Age Israel. Various theories about their origin were suggested, ranging from Assyrian-style “palaces” to Aegean-type “megaron” buildings. In 1955, Israeli archaeologist Shmuel Yeivin1 showed that the four-room house first appeared in the central hills of Israel during the early Iron Age and disappeared with the demise of the Hebrew kingdoms. He suggested that they were a particularly “Israelite” building style. This was expounded upon by Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh in the 1970s. Discoveries since the 1980s proved them right: We now know of hundreds of such houses, first appearing in the hill country in Iron Age I and spreading to the valleys and the coast in Iron II (1000–586 B.C.E.), reflecting the spread of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. A few similar houses east of the Jordan River were interpreted as evidence of Israelite settlement there as well.a And when, in the late ninth century B.C.E., people in Judah began to bury their dead in rock-cut family tombs, these tombs were actually designed like four-room houses!b2
However, recently, some archaeologists have begun taking a more critical view of connecting particular architectural styles to ethnic identity and suggest alternative explanations for the sudden proliferation and then disappearance of the four-room house. Faust, in both of the books discussed here, defends the notion of the four-room house as particularly “Israelite” and explains its design, once again, as a reflection of what he calls the Israelite “egalitarian ethos.”