Monday, April 14, 2008

Houses in Bible times

Bible Houses
I've been doing a little research of late into the construction process of housing in Bible times. It's advantageous for Bible artists to have some idea of this process as we often have to design buildings in our Bible pictures. When you have an idea of this process, it's possible to design your buildings with a level of authenticity. This research came in handy recently when illustrating the story of the 'Paralyzed man' in Mark chapter 2.
Additional text (in green) is by Dr Leen Ritmeyer. Also, the two window illustrations below are © Dr Leen Ritmeyer 2008.

Room sizes
The picture (on the right) shows the section of roof that has been removed in order that the paralyzed man might be lowered down before Jesus. The rooms in houses at this time were not very high, about 6 1/2 - 8 ft. The walls were spanned by timber beams, usually cypress or sycamore wood. These beams were spaced about the width of a man or more depending on how wealthy the home owner was and the availability of local timber. The width of the rooms was also governed by the length of roofing timbers available, usually about 9-10 ft.

Roof construction
I've illustrated the hole near the edge of the roof, (see above). The reason for this is that I imagined that the four friends of the paralyzed man would have wanted to do as little damage to the roof as possible. So, by digging the hole near the edge of the roof, it would be easy for them to see where the roof timbers were, as the timbers protruded through the stone walls at the end of the building. This would make it easy for them to dig between the roof timbers. Incidentally, where the roof timbers protruded, they were painted with hot tar to prevent decay.
Reeds, sometimes bound together with natural fiber, were then laid across the timbers. A layer of mud plaster was then applied over the reeds followed by a dry mixture of chalk, earth and ash, (which provided insulation). This layer was applied while the mud plaster was still damp. Finally a mixture of mud rich in lime, (to keep out water), was added. A stone roller was used to compact each layer, very similar to the concrete rollers that gardeners use to roll lawns. The compressed layers would have been around 3 inches thick and would have required a determined effort to dig up when hard! Roofs were weeded and re-rolled on an annual basis.
Most houses in Biblical times had flat roofs, which were used for storage and drying fruit and people also slept there in summertime.

Bible HousesWall construction
Walls were generally around 2ft thick! This was for both insulation and strength. As you can see from the picture, roughly quarried stones were used in the walls, and 'finished' limestone blocks were used on the corners of the building, door lintels, and around the windows.
Mortar, made from soil, chalk and straw, was then used to fill in the gaps between the stones. This was darker in color than the stone. The use of mortar helped both insulation and kept out both wind and rain! The straw that was used in the mortar was the leftover straw following the 'winnowing' of grain. Nothing went to waste!

I read that in first century Galilee, many windows were constructed to be narrower on the outside, to keep out intruders, and wider on the inside to let more light into the room. Apparently, this is based on an ancient Egyptian design. Windows were also small and set quite high in the wall.
Windows were often facing a southern or easterly direction as this caught the early morning sun and acted as an early form of 'alarm clock!' Windows facing this way also gave some protection from the cold winter winds and heavy rain that generally came in from the northwest.
Most rooms received their light from the courtyard, while the few windows in the outer walls were small - often widening out toward the inside, (see picture).
Houses in Biblical times did not have many windows, even the rich limited the number of openings. This had several purposes. First, windows let in the cold and weather. Also, crime could be a very big problem in urban areas. Therefore outside windows were usually small and high to avoid burglary. Instead of windows, well-to-do houses got their light and air from their courtyards. The poor suffered along in the darkness or with what poor windows their insulae might have. Perhaps if they were very lucky, a shuttered balcony might also let in light and air some of the time.

Palaces in OT times had sometimes decorative windows. One such window was found in Ramat Rachel, where Jehoiakim had a palace. Here is my drawing of that window. Fragments of similar windows have been found in the City of David, Samaria, Hazor and Megiddo. These windows faced the courtyard and never the outside.
Dr Leen Ritmeyer.

The interior picture, (top right), is not quite accurate in that these interior walls would most probably have been plastered. You can see the smaller 'chink' stones that were set into the mortar in order to achieve a flatter surface before plastering. The plastering of interior walls was done with a mixture of soil, chalk and straw, (very similar to the mortar mix). Wealthier homes were plastered both inside and out with a white lime rich plaster. Plastered walls also kept out unwanted insects and reptiles.

Building requirements
Looking up through the roof you can see the compulsory 2ft high parapet wall that bordered all roofs as a safety measure. The law regarding this building requirement is found in Deut 22:8.
If we add this 2ft high wall to the average room height of 8ft, this gives us a total height for an average single story house in Bible times of 10ft.

Update 20 April:
Dr Leen Ritmeyer has emailed me with some very interesting information about a possible alternative method of roof construction for the house in the Mark chapter 2 story of the paralyzed man.
Due to a scarcity of timber, many houses were completely built of basalt, including the ceilings! For more details on this, including a diagram, go to Dr Ritmeyers blog here.

Related posts:
No more Domes!
Being Roofless!


Paul Green said...

Great research Graham. I might add that your blog is also an excellent research source for writers as well as artists.

Horseman said...

Is it true that the houses were often 2 stories? I picked this idea up from somewhere. It seems that it was mentioned that the animals were kept in the bottom story in the winter time. The body heat from the animals served as a heater. And in the summer time the people would hang out on the top story where there was a cool breeze. Maybe someone said these things here? Can't remember.

Bible artist said...

Sorry about the delay in replying to these comments.
It was my 50th birthday yesterday, and our children treated us to a short holiday on the Yorkshire coast!

Thanks Paul.

Yes, there were two-story houses also. Synagogues were two-story buildings, also Inns. I have also read a similar description to the one you mention. This referred to the construction of a typical Inn.
I've also read that to cool off in the summer, people sat, (and slept), on the flat roofs.
The Bible has references of people calling to each other from the rooftops. Booths were also built on these flat roofs during the 'Feast of Tabernacles'.

During our short stay in Scarborough we visited a folk museum where they had reconstructed a typical house from the 'Iron age' period of Britain.
There were many similarities in the construction of these houses to the ones we've been considering.

Bible artist said...

I've just added some further information, (and a link), to this post, that has been provided by Dr Leen Ritmeyer. (See 'Houses in Bible times' post).

Paul Green said...

Belated Happy 50th Graham from myself and Bev. Now you know how I felt!! LOL

Bible artist said...

Yes, I've been told that 50 is the new 40!

Paul Green said...

This is only told - and believed - by people who are 50 or older Graham. LOL

Bible artist said...

I know! Another one is "Life begins at 50!"
These sayings don't make you feel any better about it though!!

Bill Heroman said...

Do you agree that the floors were packed earth? Perhaps at times covered with some type of hay or straw?

I just posted some thoughts I've been working on about paving (or the lack thereof) and I actually mentioned bible art... at least, my general recolection of what little I've seen...

I've always seen the Temple floor drawn in paved stone, wheras I believe it was dirt. I'm having trouble finding any professional research on that, however.

Do you know of any?

And will you please come respond to this post? I'd be very appreciative.

And I will stop by here more as well. VERY cool blog. :)

Bible artist said...

Hello Bill
Thanks for dropping by the 'Bible illustration blog'.
Yes, I came to a similar conclusion to you with regard to the floors of the outer courts. Have a look at my 'Writing in the sand' post. Although I have to say I'm not an expert!

I have forwarded your email though to Dr Leen Ritmeyer who is an expert on the Temple Mount. Hopefully he will be able to shed some light on this.

Bill Heroman said...

Brother Graham,

Thanks for the comment and encouragement. I did find your post (via the custom search!) and enjoyed scrolling past some other posts, like the Mad magazine one. I'm an old school DC/Marvel kid (well, not that old) but I definitely see Kirby in your art, and maybe a few others. (Byrne? Kane? Maybe?) Anyway, I like it! :)

I do have to ask, where did you get "sand"? Is there research on that somewhere, or is it a translation I don't know? On BLB, the NIV says "dust" and everyone else says "ground". And my greek text says "ge" which is "earth".

Again, I'm eager for more knowledge here. Whence "sand"?

Besides that, I'm honored you thought my note was worthy of Dr Ritmeyer's attention. I only hope he agrees! ;)

Bible artist said...

Sorry Bill. When I say sand, I'm talking about the dry dusty earth, (but deep enough to write in). I'm afraid that there's no deep research here on my part! Sand is my word for hot dusty earth!
I'm thinking about Diana Shimon's comments about how hot, dry and dusty Israel is for most of the year.

I'm interested to know how you add links inside your comments? I've not seen that done before. When I try to add a html link to a another page Blogger won't allow it!

Bible artist said...

I've just noticed Bill that Carl Heinrich Bloch's etching of the woman taken in adultery 1889, (see 'My favorite Bible artist #6'), is also titled "Writing in the sand", so I my have been influenced on a subconscious level when titling this post.

Brian said...

Do you have any information on what the flooring was? I've always assumed that it was just dirt. However, I read a commentator who said they put reeds down on the floor. Any research?

Bible artist said...

Hello Brian
I have just come across some info on this which also answers Bill's question above.

"Floors were either bedrock or packed dirt. During the wet season, ash was scattered about to prevent mildew"
Source:The Nazareth Jesus Knew.

Miss Marla said...

Somebody please tell me, "where was the outhouse?" We women need to know these things.

Bible artist said...

You're the second lady to ask this question on the blog - it must be a woman thing! Actually, the last lady was a school teacher who had been asked the question by a pupil (probably a girl!!) As soon as I find out where the loo's were - I'll send you directions!

Galliena Gornet said...

@Miss Marla - What's an outhouse? I don't know too much information about those times. Some people probably don't know anything about this post either. Good thing this was made! It would be nice to know what houses looked like before. ;)

Eliana said...

Great post! very helpful but i want to know if you have information about the foundations of the houses. Thank you

Anonymous said...

My email address is . I'm interested in how how houses were built in Biblical times and also how people ate and what they ate in Biblical times.I may have to go to several websites before I find all that I'm looking for.I'm sick of these modern day times and I want to know how people lived in Biblical times

Unknown said...

I am looking for someone with some good knowledge on Biblical construction to be a guest on my radio program here in Wilmington, NC. If you will please email me with information I would greatly appreciate it. The program is all about home improvement and it is on a Christian station. My name is Mark Marcley and my email is

Thank you.

If someone gets this today, Saturday, January 18, the show is from 10-11 AM.

Unknown said...

I am looking for an expert in Biblical construction to be a guest on my radio program. If you're interested please email me.

Thank you,

Mark Marcley

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering did they use anything to cover the windows?...woven cloth, basketry material or wood doors?

karengs said...

What did the inside of a typical synagogue look like? Did small towns like Bethlehem have synagogues?

Anonymous said...

What about the foundation?