Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Ballgame

Author’s note: There are several things to keep in mind when reading this article. One is that most information, on the ballgame comes from the Classic period. Another is that some facts rely on an archaeologist’s ability to interpret the meaning of an inscription/mural properly, and that interpretations are subject to change.

One of multiple views of a vase that shows a ballgame happening. It
was made anywhere from the the 600s AD to the 900s AD. From LACMA. 

The ballgame -- which was a part of cultures across all of Mesoamerica -- was an important part of ancient Maya society, varying somewhat depending on the area. To the ancient Mayas, the ballgame possessed religious and political purposes as well as a possible recreational purpose, though this is not known for sure.

Ball Court
The Maya began to build ballcourts in the Late Preclassic. Two kinds of ballcourt are known to exist, the L-shaped court and the I-shaped court. Of these two the Maya more often used the I-shaped one.
In the I-shaped court, two large, solid walls or benches were built parallel to each other, forming a long space (or alley) between them (the vertical bar of the “I”.) These walls could either be sloping or vertical and tended to be built facing north-south. At each end of this long space, there was another, smaller space, the short bars of the “I”, and these usually didn’t have anything built around them. The long space was where the ballgame was played in the court.

Despite the differences in layout (which also includes the fact that some had stone hoops while others do not), ballcourts did have similar features. Such similarities included inscriptions on the ball court walls, north-south orientation and placing the ballcourt in the middle of the city.

Playing Gear
Like in football, players of the ballgame wore protective gear while playing. Players wore padding on their arms and legs, and would also wear something on their ribs and waists to protect them.
A ceramic figurine from around 550
AD to 850 AD, from the Peten region
(in Guatemala.) From LACMA.
Rib and waist protection was different depending on the region. In the southern highlands, players wore a kind of u-shaped belt -- known as a yoke --, which was heavy and may have made of something such as leather or wood, which would be tied on top a lining. In the lowlands they used padded belts for their waist protection.
An image of the back of thefigurine
as shown on the left. Also from LACMA.
The Ball
The ball of the ballgame was made of rubber. There was no regulation standard, and balls could be as large as a soccer ball or as small as a softball.

Rules of Play
Nobody alive knows all the rules for playing. It is possible that the rules changed with time. From what the archaeologists have seen through their studies, the games goes something like this: two teams of players tried to hit the rubber ball to the other team’s open space at the end of the alley.

This is a rollout of a vessel made in Honduras between 600 AD and 900 AD. From the Yale University Art Gallery.

How was the ballgame religious or political? The religious aspect is thus: it is understood that ancient the Maya relied on reenacting mythological events as part of their rituals for keeping the world in balance. It is possible that ritual ballgames reenacted a myth in which two figures, the Hero Twins, defeated the Lords of Death in a ballgame. The ball court itself was a bridge between Middleworld (where people lived) and Xibalba, the Underworld (where the Lords of Death lived).
The political use of the ballgame was as a medium of conflict resolve. If there was an argument between two communities, it could be settled through a ballgame. An argument inside a community could be settled with a ballgame also.

Sacrifice and the Ballgame
Human sacrifice may have been part of the ballgame. However, it is not clear and sources do not always agree. Various claims have been asserted in different publications: some state the losers were sacrificed, while others state the winners were sacrificed. Still others state that it is unknown whether or not sacrifice was really part of the game at all.

Google Books: "Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City"; Alexander Parmington; 2011

Google Books: "Do All Indians Live in Tipis?: Questions & Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian"; Smithsonian Institution; 2007

Google Books: "Handbook To Life In The Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster, Peter Mathews; 2005

University of Maine: William Palmer III Collection: Ballgame

Library of Congress: Pre-Contact America: Ritual, Ceremonies and Celebrations

The University of Arizona Press: The Mesoamerican Ballgame

University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Marjorie Barrick Museum: Mesoamerican Ballgame

El Pilar: Nohol Trail 11

LACMA: Vessel with Ballgame Scene

LACMA: Ballplayer Figurine in Costume

Image Credits:
LACMA: Vessel with Ballgame Scene

LACMA: Ballplayer Figurine in Costume

Yale University Art Gallery: Tripod Vessel with Ballplayers (fourth view)

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