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Disability Ramps for Ancient Greeks

In an article published in Antiquity on July 21, 2020, archaeologist Debby Sneed describes architectural ramps at ancient Greek healing sanctuaries, ramps she argues were built to accommodate the entry of people with mobility issues. This Background Check discusses modern studies of ancient disabilities, Greek healing shrines and what went on there, and the role of votive deposits.

Ramps at Healing Sanctuaries

Accommodating people with disabilities is an ancient art and science. Neanderthals with great disabilities were cared for at least as early as 60,000 years ago; splints and braces are attested from the Old Kingdom in Egypt, 2750–2625 BCE. Writing in Antiquity, Debby Sneed describes ramps that were anciently constructed to provide easy access to Greek sanctuaries, such as the Asklepios sanctuaries at Epidauros and Corinth, which were dedicated to healing.
Reconstruction of the fourth-century BCE Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros (right), showing the ramp extending out of the front/east side (© 2019 J. Goodinson; scientific advisor J. Svolos).
Reconstruction of the fourth-century BCE Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros (right), showing the ramp extending out of the front/east side (© 2019 J. Goodinson; scientific advisor J. Svolos).


In her studies of Greek architecture, Sneed noticed that fixed stone ramps are not common but known at various public buildings in Greek cities and towns. For example, an 8x10 meter (26x33 foot) ramp was built connecting the Agora at Athens to the top of the Acropolis, and two ramps were built at the site of the first Olympics. But she noted, ramps are more often found at sanctuaries which were dedicated to healing, such as those at Epidauros and Corinth—the Asklepios sanctuary at ((http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2374|Epidauros)) had at least 11 ramps leading into nine different buildings. Ancient literature reports disabled people were carried on couches or litters, or by slaves, or used crutches or canes; a ramp would facilitate their movement into a building.

Defining Disability

Modern anthropological disability studies concentrate on the social aspects of recognition of disability, as opposed to the medical aspects. Such focus is not on the medical classification of a person as "disabled," but instead concentrates on how a community negotiates relationships, defines barriers, and builds accommodations on a case-by-case basis. In the ancient Greek world, persons with physical disabilities were recognized, and, as Sneed illustrates, to a certain extent and in certain circumstances, accommodated at healing sanctuaries.

Healing Sanctuaries

Greek healing sanctuaries—temple complexes dedicated to health and healing—first appeared in the Greek world about the 4th century BCE. More health spa than hospital, health sanctuaries are identified by the presence of inscriptions, medical instruments, and funerary and honorary votives (sacred offerings) with explicit references to illness and healing. Relevant architectural remains generally include a fountain or spring, a gymnasium, and a theatre or stadium. Such buildings were usually dedicated to the Greek god of health and medicine Asklepios, although others (Athena Hygeia, Heracles Alexikakos, Apollo, and eastern imports such as Serapis and Isis) occasionally appear as dedicatees.

In the classical Greek pantheon, different gods granted health to individuals and communities, and also deprived them of it. Illness could be a form of divine punishment ("theodicy"), dispensed for cause, revenge, or whim; people would apply to the gods to help them recover. But healing sanctuaries begin to appear about the same time as the rise of Hippocratic medicine—the kind of medicine that recognizes natural causes, albeit with an injection of the supernatural. What was practiced at healing sanctuaries was a blend of sacred and divine methods of ameliorating pain or injury. The role of the therapist at a sanctuary involved a methodological observation process that evolved over time from its specialist shamanist roots: specialists focused on reading the signs of illness within the patient's body.

Ancient literature says that treatment at the shrines included time spent in incubation ("healing dreaming"), where supplicants would lie in caves or grottoes on beds of straw or animal hides and wait for messages from the gods. If Asklepios didn't appear in someone's dreams, it was said he was "out of town", attending to clientele at a different sanctuary—most likely at Epidauros. Rites of purification and performative rites such as processions, songs, dances, and reenactments of divine myths are reported in the Roman era and may have taken place earlier.

Votive Caches

Votive caches—deposits of charms or amulets—are considered an identifier of healing sanctuaries, when they contain multiple representations of body parts. Anatomical votives were made in the shape of body parts (internal and external): hands, feet, ears, eyes, genitals, wombs, etc. Internal organs such as hearts and bladders are rare, and different sanctuaries have different votives. For example, many eye-shaped votives were recovered from Athens' Asklepeon, while Corinth has very few. Some scholars suggest on this basis that there may have been specialist sanctuaries for specific ailments, but other scholars disagree—there are simply too few surviving examples of votive caches to be certain of their meanings.

Sources and Further Reading


Binder, M. et al. "Prosthetics in Antiquity—an Early Medieval Wearer of a Foot Prosthesis (6th Century AD) from Hemmaberg/Austria." International Journal of Paleopathology, vol. 12, 2016, pp. 29-40, doi:10.1016/j.ijpp.2015.11.003.
Bottalico, Lucrezia et al. "Philosophy and Hippocratic Ethic in Ancient Greek Society: Evolution of Hospital - Sanctuaries." Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, vol. 7, no. 19, 2019, pp. 3353-3357, PubMed, doi:10.3889/oamjms.2019.474. (Open Access)
Brem, Anne-Lieke. "Anatomical Votive Reliefs as Proof for Specialisation at Ancient Greek Healing Sanctuaries?" The Votives Project, 4 May 2017. Accessed 16 July 2020.
Gosbell, Louise Anne. "'The Poor, the Crippled, the Blind, and the Lame': Physical and Sensory Disability in the Gospels of the New Testament." Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, 2015.
Penrose Jr., Walter D. "The Discourse of Disability in Ancient Greece." Classical World, vol. 108, no. 4, 2015, pp. 499-523, doi:10.1353/clw.2015.0068.
Petridou, Georgia. "Healing Shrines." A Companion to Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Georgia L. Irby, John Wiley & Sons, 2016, pp. 434-449.
Rose, Martha L. The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Shahar, Farah Syazwani et al. "A Review on the Orthotics and Prosthetics and the Potential of Kenaf Composites as Alternative Materials for Ankle-Foot Orthosis." Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials, vol. 99, 2019, pp. 169-185, doi:10.1016/j.jmbbm.2019.07.020.
Sneed, Debby. "The Architecture of Access: Ramps at Ancient Greek Healing Sanctuaries." Antiquity, 2020, doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.123.
Spikins, Penny et al. "Calculated or Caring? Neanderthal Healthcare in Social Context." World Archaeology, vol. 50, no. 3, 2018, pp. 384-403, doi:10.1080/00438243.2018.1433060.



Created by KKris. Last Modification: Tuesday 21 of July, 2020 14:42:18 EDT by KKris.