Did the Ancient Greeks Design Temples With Accessibility in Mind?

Study suggests ramps found at ancient sites may have been used by people with disabilities, but some scholars remain skeptical

Reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidauros
Reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidauros © 2019 J. Goodinson / Scientific advisor J. Svolos

New research published in the journal Antiquity posits that the ancient Greeks constructed ramps at temples, particularly those associated with healing rituals, to ensure individuals with impaired mobility could access the sacred sites.

Study author Debby Sneed, a classicist at California State University, Long Beach, developed her theory by visiting dozens of archaeological sites across Greece. She concluded that those with the highest number of ramps were common destinations for ailing visitors. The Sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus, for instance, boasts 11 stone ramps installed across nine structures, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science. Built in the sixth century B.C. to honor the Greek god of medicine and healing, the temple underwent significant renovations around 370 B.C.

In addition to cataloging the presence of ramps, Sneed cites archaeological and written evidence suggesting the Greeks recognized physical disability. Artifacts and imagery from the period feature people stooped over, moving with difficulty or walking with canes; even the Greek god Hephaestus is described as having a limp. Offerings found at various healing temples include votive carvings of worshippers’ affected body parts, from legs to feet, hands and ears.

“It seems clear that the most reasonable explanation for [these] ramps is that they were intended to help mobility-impaired visitors access the spaces that they needed to experience religious healing,” Sneed tells Live Science. “This shouldn't surprise us, really: The Greeks built these spaces for disabled people, and they built the spaces so that their target visitor could access them.”

Reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius and the Thymele at Epidauros
Reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius and the Thymele at Epidauros © 2019 J. Goodinson / Scientific advisor J. Svolos

Some scholars remain unconvinced that the ramps functioned as an early accessibility feature. Speaking with Science magazine’s Andrew Curry, Katja Sporn, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s Athens department, argues that because the ramps were predominantly located in one area (as noted in Sneed’s study), they could simply represent a short-lived, localized architectural trend. According to Sporn, the ramps were most likely multipurpose conveniences designed to “help everyone, also disabled people, walk into temples better.”

Alessandro Pierattini, an architectural historian at the University of Notre Dame, tells Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky that the study doesn’t offer enough evidence of ramps at the hundreds of other healing sites in the region.

The “whole sample of known asclepieia should have been examined and compared to other sanctuaries,” he says. “More case studies should be examined in order to demonstrate that there were patterns linking the percentage of legs in the [anatomical offerings] to the presence of ramps.”

Most Greek temples were built as residences for the gods, who were represented by large bronze, gold and ivory statues. The materials used to create these likenesses, as well as others employed in altars and decorations, were difficult to transport, but a ramp would have made the task much easier. Ramps likewise could have aided construction efforts, as building temples and sanctuaries required heavy stone and marble. Ancient Egyptians, for example, used a complex system of ramps and pulleys to remove giant alabaster blocks from stone quarries and build the pyramids.

Vase showing old man with a staff
This vase, dated to around 480 B.C., shows an older man leaning on his staff as a younger warrior wields a spear. Metropolitan Museum of Art

“When classicists discuss these ramps, they explain them as a means of conveying sacrificial animals, statues, and other dedications, or building materials—and it’s true, we can’t rule those additional uses out,” Sneed tells Gizmodo. “This is the idea behind Universal Design (UD) in modern architecture, that you build things that will benefit the most numbers of people. I think that the ramps, especially at healing sanctuaries, were built with disabled people in mind, but they would have been multifunctional.”

Despite their culture’s emphasis on the aesthetics of idealized beauty and symmetry, the ancient Greeks didn’t treat impaired individuals like outcasts. Wounded warriors were treated especially well, as vulnerability was considered a virtue. And, during the fourth century B.C., Athens offered government assistance programs for disabled individuals.

“The city provided a regular maintenance payment for adult male citizens who were disabled and could not support themselves because of their disability,” says Sneed to Live Science. “We know about this payment primarily because we have a speech, delivered by a man who says he walks with the aid of two crutches.”

According to Sneed, the man, who stood accused of welfare fraud, was “defending both his disability and his inability to support himself because of it.”

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