Greco-Roman Skamma (Wrestling Pit)

a Greek pentathlete with a mattock for preparing the skamma to the left (kylix painting c. 500 BC) – Greco-Roman Skamma (Wrestling Pit)
a Greek pentathlete with a mattock for preparing the skamma to the left (kylix painting c. 500 BC)

The skamma was a section of softened earth in Greco-Roman stadiums used for palé (wrestling), pygmachia (boxing), pankration, and the long jump (featured in the pentathlon). Contrary to film depictions, the skamma was not a pit of sand, but rather a section of earth turned up by mattocks. Technically, referring to it as a pit at all is somewhat inaccurate, though usually accepted as common practice. It was an integral part of the aforementioned competitions, and had to be freshly prepared for each Panhellenic festival (such as the ancient Olympic Games).

The skamma was also a central feature of the palaestra, a Greek institution for combat sports and intellectual pursuits for men. Each gymnasium had a palaestra attached, though some palaestra were established independently as well. As these institutions were central icons in the life of the Greek male, the skamma itself may have held similar significance as a symbol of masculinity.


Construction

The area for the skamma had no finite boundaries or markings to determine its size. It was supposed to be about 50 Greek feet (pous) in length and width, so the men softening the ground with mattocks would aim for an area around that size. Greek and imperial feet typically convert nearly one-to-one, so the skamma would end up being around 50 imperial feet in length and width. However, the Greek foot was not standardized, so the size of this area could vary by a few feet. This lack of standardization can also seen in the archaeological study of Greek stadium tracks as well, which were supposed to be built 600 Greek feet in length but in actuality can vary by up to 150 imperial feet.


Athletic Usage

The skamma was the ring used for combat sports in Greek culture. In Greek wrestling (palé), forcing the opponent out of this ring counted as a fall, of which three were needed to win the match. Forcing the opponent out of the ring doesn’t seem to be mentioned as part of boxing (pygmachia) or pankration, so it is likely this simply wasn’t allowed. For example, the judges may have simply halted the match to have the competitors move back to the center when they moved too close to the edge, though this is speculation. Much like modern sand pits used for the long jump, the skamma also served as a soft landing area for the Greek long jump, part of the pentathlon. The soft earth allowed for officials to measure the distance of the jump using the impressions left by the athlete’s feet.

As the skamma was simply a patch of dug up earth that would shortly return to its natural state, it is not easy to find evidence of it at archaeological sites in modern times. Our knowledge of its sizing primarily comes through Greek writings. As mentioned above, it was supposed to be 50 Greek feet (pous) in length and width, though because the Greek foot was not standardized, this landing area likely varied slightly in size among different gymnasiums. It was likely typically prepared between 50 and 55 imperial feet in length and width.

There are several records of ancient Greek athletes clearing the entire skamma in the long jump. At 50 to 55 imperial feet in length, this pit would be too long to clear a single jump, even with the additional momentum gained from using halteres. (For comparison, no modern long jump record has met or exceeded 30 feet.) This is one of the primary pieces of evidence that suggests the long jump in the ancient Greek pentathlon was more likely a triple jump.

Bibliography

Miller, S. G. (2006). Ancient Greek athletics. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sweet, W. E. (1987). Sport and recreation in ancient Greece: A sourcebook with translations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gardiner, E. N. (2002). Athletics in the ancient world. Dover Publications.

Miller, S. G. (2001). The early Hellenistic stadium. University of California Press.