Ancient Greek Architects Ensured Disabled Access to Healing Temples
Disabled access, mobility and compassionate architectural planning are terms that anyone with a public business will know all too well, but a new paper published by researchers at the Department of Classics, California State University, in the journal Antiquity looks at these concepts in terms of ancient Greek architecture.
Ancient Greece is an archaeological powerhouse renowned for its thousands of ruined temples and sanctuaries, including several sites associated with healing cults. Informed by modern disability studies, the new paper analyses the architecture of public spaces and facilities presenting epigraphic, iconographic and literary evidence arguing that in ancient Greece architects went to great lengths to assure disabled people had easy access to healing sanctuaries.
Detail of a later fifth-century BC frieze (Block V) of the Parthenon in Athens, showing the disabled god Hephaestus with a crutch tucked under his right arm (British Museum, London, 1816,0610.19; image © Trustees of the British Museum / Antiquity Publishers Ltd)
Accessibility in Ancient Greece
The paper says that even without a framework of civil rights as we understand them today, the builders of ancient Greek sites made “architectural choices that enabled individuals with impaired mobility to access these spaces,” and the researcher hopes that this new study might inspire further investigations into accessibility at other sites in the ancient world.
The paper’s author, Dr Debby Sneed, said she adopted a disability studies perspective and allowing for diversity in the demographic makeup of past societies she was able to ask whether or not conscious and serious consideration was given to the accessibility of ancient public spaces in Greece during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. And the scientist concludes that the ancient Greeks made architectural choices enabling mobility impaired individuals access to certain spaces where relatively large numbers of disabled individuals were expected to visit.
Reconstruction of the 4 th century BC tholos at the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros. (Image: © 2019 J. Goodinson, scientific advisor, J Svolos. Antiquity Publishers Ltd)
Disability Is Not “One” Thing
Dr Sneed said the field of disability studies began in the UK and the USA in the 1970s and so developed the “social model” of disability, which she says is antithetical to the so-called “medical model” of disability. The latter is underpinned by the notion of an individual ’s impairments being the direct cause of her or his greater problems, where overcoming disability requires overcoming one 's own body, while the social model identifies disability as “externally imposed restrictions on an impaired body.”
This new research leans heavily on the “social model” of disability focusing exclusively on lower body physical impairments and how these individuals were accommodated for by ancient Greek architects, who the author says constructed ramps at healing sanctuaries to make them more accessible to members of the disabled and elderly community, as well as pregnant women and small children.
Attic red-figure amphora attributed to the Matsch Painter,c. 480 BC, showing a departure scene. An old man (left) leans on a crooked staff or crutch as he bids the warrior farewell. (Photograph courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 56.171.39 / Antiquity Publishers Ltd)
Evidence of Compassionate Architectural Reasoning
Many ancient Greek sanctuaries have fixed stone ramps and the new paper offers the 80 × 10 meter ramp that connects the Athenian Agora to the top of the Acropolis as an example of a ramp leading through a gateway, which Dr Sneed says are “clearly intended to facilitate wheeled traffic.” However, until now academia has in the most part assumed that these ramps were for transporting “sacrificial animals, votive dedications or building materials into or out of the buildings to which they were attached.”
Unconvinced by these explanations Dr Sneed points out that in some instances one ramp is attached to the main temple but not with any of the smaller and subsidiary buildings, and she adds that animal sacrifices happened on altars “in front of temples.” The researcher also points out that ancient Greek healing sanctuaries have more ramps, and that the concentration of ramps at sites frequented by individuals with mobility impairments appears to suggest that the ancient Greeks consciously provided for the needs of the users of these public spaces.
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The ramp at the north side of the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Corinth, looking west towards the Lerna Court (Photograph taken with permission from Roebuck 1951: pl. 16.6 / Antiquity Publishers Ltd)
Community Care in a Culture Void of Civil Rights
Dr Sneed says that when we acknowledge the somatic realities of ancient Greek life and begin accepting that far from being excluded, individuals with impaired mobility led productive and meaningful roles within their families and greater communities, we can start to ask new penetrating questions about the physical framework of the ancient world and how the less fortunate were treated. Furthermore, the professor’s research offers archaeologists new interpretational models for architectural features like ramps, which until now according to the author “scholars have so far paid little, if any, attention.”
While this new paper brings into focus how people with impaired mobility were accommodated for in the ancient world, the researcher reminds that ancient Greek society “neither mirrors our own, nor is it a precursor of a modern Western civilization.” And this means that even where archaeologists and anthropologists note similarities in the construction of accessibility ramps they must be careful not to immediately associate them with the same cause, because ancient Greeks had no civil rights.
Top image: Reconstruction of the 4 th century BC Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros (right) showing the ramp Source: © 2019 J. Goodinson, scientific advisor, J Svolos. Antiquity Publishers Ltd
By Ashley Cowie