Ancient Greeks are known for several inventions in building construction, but the use of ramps for people with disabilities or who simply were unable to climb stairs is an innovation that researchers have confirmed only recently.
According to a story in Science magazine, recent findings show that ancient Greek architecture kept the needs of disabled people in mind. The evidence has been there all along, but it seems that it had somehow been overlooked by archaeologists.
According to archaeologist Debby Sneed at California State University at Long Beach, the reason researchers did not pay attention to such architectural details is because the persons depicted in ancient Greek art are almost always fit, so it was generally assumed that there was “no room in Greek society for people who weren’t able-bodied.”
However, there is ample evidence that ancient Greeks indeed did take care of their fellow citizens or the elderly, who had difficulty climbing stairs.
Sneed told Science magazine that people on canes or crutches are sometimes depicted on sculptures and vases, while skeletal evidence shows arthritis and joint disease were common in ancient Greece. Additionally, small clay offerings depicting afflicted legs and feet were known to have been placed in sanctuaries dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.
The archaeologist has visited several ancient sanctuaries in Greece and read excavation reports to find evidence that ancient Greeks actually took disabilities into account when constructing public buildings.
Sneed found that the two best-documented healing sanctuaries dedicated to Asclepius that she studied were outfitted with more ramps than other sacred sites, and that their ramps were more likely to access buildings other than the main temple.
Ramps commonly found in ancient Greece at sites for those with disabilities, illnesses
The archaeologist found that at Asclepius’ main sanctuary at Epidaurus, 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 that are just wide enough to walk up.
The researcher also discovered that in sites she visited she saw ramps that previous archaeologists had somehow just not included in their scientific papers. And when ramps were referred to in publications, they were usually described as ways to move animals or construction materials.
But according to Sneed, animals were usually sacrificed outside the temple, and most Greek buildings don’t have ramps, suggesting they were not common.
Furthermore, Sneed discovered that there were more ramps in sanctuaries that were visited by a majority of disabled people. For instance, the massive Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia has just two known ramps. But at Epidaurus, there are 11 stone ramps — to nine separate buildings.
“The distribution is pretty clear: They show up in places where there are more disabled people,” Sneed concluded.
According to the Science magazine article, Historian Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow welcomes the findings about the particular architectural findings in ancient Greek public buildings and agrees with Sneed’s argument, saying “These sites are predominantly catering to people with disabilities — doesn’t it make sense that they would be accommodating?”