One of the most important elements in the material culture of early Israelite sites is the layout of the settlements. Pottery forms change relatively fast, but architecture is more conservative and reflects deep-rooted traditions over a long period of time. The plan of some of these sites apparently points to the origin of their inhabitants as pastoral nomads.

Let us look first at the layout of Izbet Sartah, level III, one of the earliest Israelite settlement sites known.35 It is oval-shaped, with a row of broadrooms surrounding a large central courtyard.

Similar elliptical “courtyard sites” have been found in various regions of the country—in Western Galilee, in the central hill-country, in the Judean Desert (perhaps Transjordan as well) and even into the Negev Highlands. At Tel Beer-Sheva, for example, adjacent four-room houses arranged perpendicularly to the periphery compose an 11th-century B.C. “courtyard site” found in stratum VII.

Another 11th-century site in the Beer-Sheva valley, Tel Esdar, exhibits independent structures built parallel to the periphery. The majority of such sites date from Iron I or early in Iron II. The outstanding feature of all these sites is the dominant position of the courtyard. The courtyard area—compared to the built-up area—varies from 65 to 80 percent of the total area of the settlement. Such a large courtyard obviously played a central role—figuratively as well as literally—in the daily life of the inhabitants, undoubtedly as a shelter for their flocks.

The inhabitants of these “courtyard sites” were people whose primary economic activity was herding. Neither ethnic nor chronological factors should be sought to explain the configuration of the settlement. The reasons for this specific layout are strictly socio-economic. The special architectural form reflected the subsistence base—pastoralism—of the inhabitants and their social organization.

It is widely accepted that nomads in the process of sedentarization retain traditions from their pastoral existence, at least initially. An obvious example is the transference of their tradition of dwelling in portable tents made of perishable materials to their permanent architecture. This process can be seen in modern times, as well as in ancient times.36 The literature dealing with the life-style of nomads in the 19th and 20th centuries indicates that in cases of enclosed encampments, the tents were arrayed linearly, in the form of a crescent, or were pitched in a circular or elliptical arrangement. In some regions, this arrangement was even called duwwar, “circle” in Arabic.

Two photographs of duwwar encampments taken at the beginning of this century enable us to study their structure and size. The first, elliptical in outline, was located in Transjordan; the second, rectangular or trapezoidal in form, was found in the Judean Desert.37 The surface area of the encampment and the number of tents are similar in both cases. The tents opened onto the large central courtyard. There were one or two entrances into the encampment. The origin of the elliptical Israelite settlement sites should be sought in nomadic encampments like this. If this is true, it follows that the individual unit of construction—a broadroom or “casemate”—reflects the individual desert tent. The tradition of the tent shape was extremely strong, stronger even than some architectural traditions of stone construction; it was deeply rooted in centuries of an unchanging lifestyle and consistent geographical setting. Therefore, it is unlikely that the shape of the desert tent was altered over the course of time. It remained a broad “structure”—that is, with the opening on the broad side—and it generally opened to the east because the wind blows from the west. The dimensions varied according to the size and means of the family. A large tent might be as much as 40 feet broad and 15 feet deep. A small tent would be as small as 20 feet broad and 8 feet deep.

The similarity between the individual tent and the isolated broadroom in the oval settlement sites is striking. So is the similarity in the arrangement of the duwwar tent-camp and the elliptical “courtyard sites” of the Israelite settlement.38 The resemblances are evident in general layout, details of plan, function of units, and dimensions. The inhabitants of the “courtyard sites” must have become sedentary only recently, and their residential customs, as well as their subsistence base, were still connected to their former pastoral mode of living. The rounded or elliptical layout had clear advantages for such groups of people: relative security and a convenient area for sheltering their flocks.

The origins of many of the Israelites must therefore be sought in pastoral nomads becoming sedentary, that is, settling down in permanent structures.