Ancient Greeks had the first disabled access to buildings around 2,400 years ago, according to a new study.
Archaeologists say 11 small stone ramps at a healing sanctuary originally built in the 6th century BC helped the mobility-impaired.
Several Ancient Greek temples and other buildings, some older than the 4th century BC, were likely also built with disabled access in mind.
Many Ancient Greek temples had ramps, although these have often been ignored by archaeologists, who assumed them to be sacrificial altars for animals.
But they sometimes served as disabled access – especially at healing sanctuaries, where the disabled visitors prayed and presented carvings to the gods with the hope of recovery.
The US study presents the earliest know evidence of ancient societies adapting architecture to meet the needs of disabled people.
‘Archaeologists have long known about ramps on ancient Greek temples, but have routinely ignored them in their discussions of Greek architecture,’ said Dr Debby Sneed from California State University in Long Beach, US.
‘The likeliest reason why ancient Greek architects constructed ramps was to make sites accessible to mobility impaired visitors.
‘Even without a framework of civil rights as we understand them today, the builders of these sites made architectural choices that enabled individuals with impaired mobility to access these spaces.’
Dr Sneed, sole author of the study, formed her conclusions when re-evaluating the geographical distribution of ramps in ancient Greece, which are common but have been neglected in prior research.
Ramps are often missing in plans in scholarly articles and student text books, despite being common at healing sanctuaries where large numbers of visitors came in search of help from the healing god Asclepius.
The clearest case of a sanctuary adapted for disabled access is the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus, an ancient city in the modern-day region of Peloponnese.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius, which was initially built in the 6th century BC, was a vast site containing temples and hospital buildings devoted to its healing gods and became on of the most important healing sanctuaries in Ancient Greece.
Renovations starting in 370 BC expanded the site but also focused on increasing disabled access – 11 stone ramps installed on nine structures during the renovations.
Meanwhile, at the smaller sanctuary of Asclepius in Corinth, also in modern-day Peloponnese, great care was given to the access ramps, which feature ‘fine masonry’.
A large number of carved dedications to the god represent legs and feet, suggesting people requested healing in this part of the body.
‘This is now the earliest evidence we have to show that ancient societies were not only capable of giving active and conscious attention to the needs to their disabled community members but that they sometimes chose to expend considerable resources and labour in order to make certain spaces more inclusive of a wide range of body types,’ said Dr Sneed.
Sources indicate disabilities were common in Ancient Greece and tests detail a range of conditions that restricted mobility.
Historical documents report examples of this, including the Athenian statesman Miltiades (554-489 BC), who is credited with winning the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
He suffered a leg injury and had to be carried on a litter – a vehicle carried by porters – for the rest of his life.
The majority of adults in ancient Greece, comprising citizens, slaves, and foreigners, men and women, likely either experienced disability themselves, or encountered it through a member of their household or community.
Archaeological evidence taken from grave sites also suggests disability was common in Ancient Greece.
As much as 60 per cent of individuals excavated from a Classical-period cemetery at the site of Amphipolis, an ancient city in Northern Greece, had osteoarthritis.
This familiarity with disability is also reflected in Greek mythology – Hephaestus, one of 12 Olympian gods and the patron god of craftsmen, had a mobility impairment.
Some ramps in Ancient Greece are thought to have simple and practical functions, such as helping deliver supplies by cart, but they’re more common at healing sanctuaries, where many major and minor buildings had ramp access.
This is evidence that they were not simply built for carts but helped the mobility-impaired.
‘More than 2,000 years ago, ancient Greeks spent time and money building ramps to aid individuals who could not easily ascend or descend stairs, and all without targeted legislation requiring them to do so,’ said Dr Sneed.
‘It is hoped that this research may stimulate further investigations into accessibility at other sites in the Classical world and beyond.’
The study has been published in Antiquity.
Katja Sporn, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s Athens department, expressed doubt about the theory, however.
She told Science that ramps are found predominantly in the Peloponnese, which is the heartland of Ancient Greece, which could make them a regional and brief architectural trend that had more than one purpose.
‘It helps everyone, also disabled people, walk into temples better, but that you would only do it for disabled people I don’t find convincing,’ she said.