Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Mesoamerican Ballgame

Before their arrival in the New World, the Spanish had never before seen games played with balls of rubber, a substance unknown in Europe. Upon their arrival in central Mexico, they were so enamored with the Aztec ballgame that they sent a team of indigenous players to Spain to play before the court of Charles V. The game the Spanish witnessed in the Aztec region was just one manifestation of a long-lived and wide-ranging ballgame tradition in Mesoamerica. Cultures throughout Mesoamerica played games using rubber balls, and the tradition extended to the Caribbean and the southwestern United States. Mesoamerican peoples played many types of ballgames, with different rules and styles of play. These games share certain aspects, however, particularly their settings and symbolic functions. Information about the Mesoamerican ballgame comes from surviving ballcourts, ballgame artifacts and paraphernalia, and ballgame-related imagery and texts.

The earliest evidence for the ballgame comes from Paso de la Amada, Guatemala, where Warren Hill, Michael Blake, and John E. Clark excavated a ballcourt dating to 1400 B.C. Additional evidence that may point to the early ballgame comes from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where Ponciano Ortíz and María del Carmen Rodríguez discovered rubber balls at El Manatí dating to approximately 1600 B.C. The size of these balls corresponds to the size of ball used in the ballgame, although they could also represent ritual deposits. A model of a ballcourt from Nayarit in West Mexico indicates the game was an important part of life as early as the Late Preclassic period (ca. 300 B.C.–250 A.D.). Ballcourts and ballgame imagery increase drastically in the Classic Period (ca. 250–900) in the Maya area as well as among the Veracruz cultures of the Gulf Coast. The ballgame remained important to cultures throughout Mesoamerica, including the Mixtec and the Aztec, who flourished in southern and central Mexico, respectively, in the centuries immediately prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. The game is played in modern times as well: in the 2017 Mesoamerican Ballgame Tournament, held in Teotihuacan, Mexico, the team from Belize took home the title.

More than 1,500 ballcourts have been discovered in Mesoamerica. Ballcourts typically feature a narrow central playing aisle with an endzone at both extremes (1994.35.527). The central playing field is flanked by two long and thin rectangular buildings, which may have served as stands or viewing areas. In some ballcourts, the endzones are enclosed, and the resulting shape of the ballcourt looks like an upper-case letter “I.” In other ballcourts, the endzones are open. Ballcourts vary in size throughout Mesoamerica. The largest known ballcourt is at Chichén Itzá, where the court is 316 feet (96.5 meters) long and 98 feet (30 meters) wide. Many sites featured multiple ballcourts: at El Tajín, in Veracruz, for example, archaeologists have identified at least fifteen courts. Ballcourts were often placed in the ceremonial center of ancient sites, close to important temples and funerary shrines. Ballcourts were also home to stone sculpture, including low-relief panels set into the side walls, as at El Tajín and Chichén Itzá, and round disks called ballcourt markers set into the floor of the central playing aisle, as at Copán. Although ballcourts are primarily associated with the ballgame, archaeological excavation indicates they were used for other purposes as well, like feasting, ritual performances, and other types of sports, including boxing. Likewise, the ballgame may have been played in locations outside the ballcourt.

The rules of the ballgame varied from place to place. The Dominican friar Diego Durán wrote that one objective of the Aztec game was to keep the ball in constant motion. In some variations of the game, players tried to move the ball through rings located on the upper side walls of the ballcourt. Players may also have scored points by hitting or interacting with stone ballcourt markers in the central playing aisle or lines painted on the plaster-covered floor. Depictions of the ballgame show players (1995.550.2) in teams of two or more, although, like other aspects of the ballgame, this probably varied across time and space. Players were required to hit the ball with the trunks of their bodies rather than with their hands and feet. Maya sculptures and ceramic vessels often depict ballplayers in a distinctive posture (1970.138a,b), poised to hit the ball with their hip. In some areas, players used wooden paddles to move the ball around the court. The ballgame was probably played by people from all ranks of Mesoamerican society, much like sports today, but surviving depictions of the game feature elites playing and watching the ballgame. In the Aztec region, it was common for spectators to gamble on the game. Evidence also suggests the ballgame was a noisy affair: one Maya vase depicts speech scrolls emerging from the mouths of ballgame participants and viewers, while a ballcourt model from West Mexico shows a figure blowing on a conch shell, perhaps to mark the start of play.

The game was played with solid rubber balls (2005.91.1), which were manufactured from native rubber-producing plants. These balls could be quite heavy, and depictions of the ballgame typically show players wearing layers of protective padding (1989.28), especially around the midsection. Some ballplayers also wore knee pads and hand mitts. In Veracruz, iconographic evidence suggests that ballplayers wore objects around their waist called “yokes” (1978.412.15). Named after their agricultural counterparts, yokes are U-shaped, and surviving examples are made of stone. Two related types of sculpture, “hachas“ (1978.412.151) and “palmas” (00.5.59), would have fit on top of the yokes. Surviving stone examples would not have been worn in the ballgame because they are too heavy. Instead, they represent ceremonial versions of ballgame gear, replicas that were probably restricted to ritual or funerary contexts.

While the ballgame was a source of sport and entertainment in ancient Mesoamerica, it also had important symbolic associations. Some scholars have suggested that the movement of the ball across the court is analogous to the movement of the sun across the sky. In this view, the ballgame represents a battle between day and night, when the sun must pass through the Underworld before rising again at dawn. Closely connected to this idea is the theme of agricultural fertility (2014.632.1); this is ensured through the movement of celestial bodies, which create seasons and rainfall. Ballcourts were also thought of as connections to the Underworld. In the Maya area, surviving texts indicate the ballgame was the setting for mythological battles between the forces of life and death. Painted ceramic vases and carved stone sculptures show kings dressed as gods reenacting these mythological games.

The ballgame was also associated with human sacrifice, particularly decapitation. A carved stone panel at El Tajín, for example, depicts an individual being sacrificed in a ballcourt, while another panel at Chichén Itzá shows a kneeling ballplayer who has been decapitated; serpents and vegetation sprout from his neck, underlining the regenerative nourishing power of sacrificial blood. Depictions of sacrifice related to the ballgame are found throughout Mesoamerica, from sculptures at Bilbao, on Guatemala’s south coast (1978.412.22), to codices, or folded books, from central Mexico. Sacrifice and the ballgame are also connected in the Popol Vuh, a K’iche’ Maya creation myth in which two pairs of brothers play ball with the Lords of Xibalba, the Underworld. However, despite the close association of sacrifice and the ballgame, the exact mechanism and meaning of that sacrifice remain obscure. In other words, it is unclear who was sacrificed and when, and how that sacrifice related to the ballgame itself. Continuing archaeological excavations and study of ballgame-related objects promise to shine new light on this topic, as well as on other aspects of the ballgame, a long-lived and deeply meaningful Mesoamerican tradition.