New research shows ancient Greeks may have used ramps for accessibility

New research shows ancient Greeks may have used ramps for accessibility
Reconstruction of the fourth-century BC tholos at the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros. Rendering ©2019 J. Goodinson; scientific advisor J. Svolos.
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Laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into action in 1990 and the 1995 UK Disability Discrimination Act, seek to make society more accessible. These kinds of regulations make buildings accessible, tasks doable, and more for those who are disabled while they also benefit many who would be considered able-bodied. Ramps are one of the most basic forms of such accommodations and a recently published article shows evidence that ancient Greeks may have utilised accessible architecture, particularly for temples of healing.

Extensive research has gone towards better understanding the lives and society of ancient Greeks, but, Debby Sneed, a professor of classics at Long Beach’s California State University, has taken a closer look at the presence of ramps in fourth century BC architecture.

Through her studies, Sneed has looked at the prevalence of mobility-impaired people recorded throughout ancient Greek society, who are most often thought of burly, strong, Olympian types. Contrary to this idea, Sneed discusses a number of records, from written tales to images painted onto amphoras, recountings instances in which people used crutches and canes or were carried. Despite these accounts, when ramps leading to temples or other buildings were mentioned by excavators, they were typically chalked up to people carrying in goods or bringing animals to sacrifice at the temple. Sneed, though, felt there might be more to the story.


Reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius and the Thymele at Epidauros. Rendering ©2019 J. Goodinson; scientific advisor J. Svolos.


Ultimately, her research has brought her to the conclusion that ramps were included, of course for various purposes, but also to assist mobility-impaired people. What Sneed discovered was that at temples specifically for healing, there was an unusual number of ramps allowing for access to various parts of the building. At the sixth century BC healing Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros, for example, there were 11 stone ramps across nine individual buildings. At another smaller temple to Asclepius near Corinth, Sneed found comparably more ramps. Meanwhile, at other large temples, the number of ramps were far fewer. “The distribution is pretty clear: They show up in places where there are more disabled people,” said Sneed.

While the wheelchair wouldn’t be created for many more centuries, ramps would have made buildings more accessible for those unable to walk, as being carried up steps on a litter or stretcher isn’t as easy as being carried up a ramp, to those who require a cane to steady their balance.

As with most theories, not everyone shares Sneed’s opinion on the matter. According to Science, Katja Sporn, head of the Athens department of the German Archaeological Institute, feels that the trend might have been regional and short-lived. “It helps everyone, also disabled people, walk into temples better,” Sporn told the publication. “But that you would only do it for disabled people I don’t find convincing.”

Sneed does, however, note that the addition of ramps at particular ancient Greek sites is not to say that they were created out of forms of regulation. “The ancient Greeks, that is, were not progressive,” writes Sneed. “We can, however, discuss the motivations behind the decisions of ancient Greek architects and builders, and of ancient Greeks in general, and consider the effects for individuals living within that society.”

Sneed’s study, “The architecture of access: ramps at ancient Greek healing Sanctuaries,” was published July 20th in Antiquity.