About ball games

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There were a number of ball games that were being played in Mesoamerica during the Classic Period, there was however one that appears to have been the most prolific and had the greatest impact on Mesoamerican society.  This game went by many names, but is often referred to by archaeologists as "the ballgame." The reason for the ballgame's great importance is the profound role it played in religion, government, social status, and everyday life. This simple game played a not so simple role in many ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Some historical background is necessary to fully understand the importance the ball courts and the ball game specifically played in Mesoamerica. There are two theories for where this ballgame originated. The first theory which is believed by most archaeologists who have studied the ball courts is that the Olmec, a civilization which once thrived on the coastal plain of Southern Veracruz first created the Mesoamerican ballgame. There is a high concentration of ball courts upon which the game was played in this region and they are the most elaborate to have been found to date. This theory also takes into consideration the abundance of latex-bearing trees in this region which would have been needed to produce the rubber for the rubber ball with which the game was played. There is however a site in the Casma Valley in Peru with a ball court which has been dated using carbon dating to be 700 years older than previously found ball courts and is 2,500 km south of Mesoamerica. There are three theories which exist to serve as possible answers linking this ball court to those in Mesoamerica. The first is that the ball courts originated in the area around Peru and spread to Mesoamerica. There is the issue of no other ball courts having been found between these two locations. One solution to this issue would be the transmission of the game between traders on the sea however these has yet to be found an evidence to suggest that the people of this period were yet capable of such travel. A second possibility would be that these courts were more common along the western border of South America and that in time with more excavation these courts will be uncovered. The third theory is that the two courts and their relative similarities are an odd coincidence that happened by mere chance (Pozorski and Pozorski 1995).

There have been a number of courts found throughout Mesoamerica and a select number of southern states in the United States. While some of the courts seem to follow a regimented size and shape, there are many which differ from the standard size we have seen at many sites. Most of the courts that have been found are of the I-shaped variety. There have also been some courts found that are T-shaped. Between these two varieties, there is yet another distinction. Some of the courts are open, while some are closed. The closed courts are enclosed by walls or raised mounds. The open variety is not enclosed at the four points of the I or two points of the T depending on the site. A third type of court that has been uncovered is simply delimited by rows of stones or low embankments without any definite end field structures (Whalen and Minnis 1996).

The ball courts vary greatly in size. The largest one found to date lies in Chichén Itzá and measures 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. One might assume that the larger courts occur in the areas with the largest population. It appears however that this may not be the case. In a study comparing playing field area and room block area, a simple measure of site size, it was found that there is little association between the two factors. A second distinction to be made among ball courts are their relative position in relation to population centers. There two main types of ball courts in this regard. There are ball courts that occur within residential communities, occasionally utilizing buildings as court barriers and a second type which are found set apart from any recognizable settlement or community. The ball courts which are found within or near population centers are assumed to have been public ball courts and their location next to or near temples lends to the notion that the courts played a significant role in ritual and social life. (Whalen and Minnis 1996). The epic Popol Vuh written by a Mayan nobleman after the Spanish Conquest depicts a story of creation and history in which two sets of brothers enter the underworld and challenge the underworld gods to a game played out on a ball court. The story tells of the first team, the First Fathers, being defeated and sacrificed by the underworld gods. The second team, the Hero Twins, is the children of one of the First Fathers and the Hero Twins go on the defeat the underworld gods and sacrifice them in return. The twins go on to resurrect the First Fathers who eventually become the sun and Venus. Simular religious beliefs are abundant throughout Mesoamerican culture (Miller 1989).

The Maya and the Aztec and other Mesoamerican cultures also regarded the ballgame as a public reenactment or metaphor of warfare. In war the enemy is killed in battle and taken captive by the winning force. On the ball court however, the defeated team often suffered the fate of sacrifice at the hands of the victors in a public display of prowess. The ballcourts have often been found with skull racks where the decapitated heads of the defeated team are displayed for all to see.