The ramps for disabled people that smooth entry into many public buildings today aren’t a modern invention. The ancient Greeks constructed similar ramps of stone to help individuals who had trouble walking or climbing stairs access holy sites, new research suggests. That would make the ramps—some more than 2300 years old—the oldest known evidence of architecture designed to meet the needs of the disabled.
The evidence for ramps and their use has been there all along, but archaeologists haven’t paid much attention to it, argues Debby Sneed, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach. People tend to think all ancient Greeks were as muscular and fit as the individuals depicted in their art, she says. “There’s this assumption that there is no room in Greek society for people who weren’t able-bodied.”
Sneed says there are plenty of clues to the contrary. Sculptures and vases regularly show men and women leaning on canes or crutches, she notes. Skeletal evidence reveals arthritis and joint disease were common. And small clay offerings depicting afflicted legs and feet were left behind by hopeful visitors to sanctuaries dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.
To see whether ancient Greek architecture took disability into account, Sneed looked for ramps at sanctuaries across ancient Greece, scouring published excavation reports and visiting dozens of sanctuaries in person.
Sneed focused on the fourth century B.C.E., when sanctuaries to Asclepius proliferated. She found that the two best documented healing sanctuaries she looked at were outfitted with more ramps than other sacred sites, and that their ramps were more likely to access buildings other than the main temple.
At Asclepius’s main sanctuary at Epidaurus, near Athens, for example, a broad stone ramp led up to the temple. Two more ramps led through the sanctuary gates. And a series of smaller side buildings also feature narrow ramps just wide enough to walk up, Sneed reports today in Antiquity. High stairs would be hard for people using crutches. And though wheelchairs wouldn’t be invented for more than 1000 years, visitors to healing shrines who couldn’t walk sometimes had to be carried on litters or stretchers—both easier to navigate up a ramp.
Often, when visiting sites in person she found ramps excavators hadn’t included in publications. And when ramps were published, they were usually described as ways to move animals or construction materials in and out of temples. Sneed says that’s unlikely: Animals were usually sacrificed outside, and most Greek buildings don’t have ramps, suggesting they weren’t common for construction purposes.
Sneed’s biggest clue came from how unevenly ramps were distributed. The massive Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, for example, has just two known ramps. But at Epidaurus, “There are 11 stone ramps on nine separate buildings,” Sneed says. Another, smaller temple to Asclepius near Corinth also featured ample access to ramps. “The distribution is pretty clear: They show up in places where there are more disabled people.”
Not everyone is convinced. Katja Sporn, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s Athens department and the author of a paper examining temple ramps in the Greek world, notes that ramps are found predominantly in the Peloponnese, the heartland of ancient Greece. To her, that raises the possibility they were a regional and relatively short-lived architectural trend. At most, ramps were multipurpose conveniences, she argues. “It helps everyone, also disabled people, walk into temples better,” Sporn says. “But that you would only do it for disabled people I don’t find convincing.”
Others say the research is a welcome step toward a better understanding of how disability shaped life—and buildings—in the past. “I think [Sneed] makes a very strong argument,” says historian Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. “These sites are predominantly catering to people with disabilities—doesn’t it make sense that they would be accommodating?”