Functionality of the Ballcourt

In 1500 B.C, the Mesoamerican ball players began to use a rubber ball instead of the previously used wooden or leather balls. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Olmec were the first to play the ballgame during this time period.

The Olmec courts were roughly the size of a modern day football field; however, they were shaped differently. As seen from an aerial view, the courts look like a capital “I” with two perpendicular end zones at the top and bottom.  Ballplayers would bounce the balls against walls that surrounded the court. In the center of the court on either side were two stone hoops. The architecture of the court included elaborate paintings, ornate carvings, as well as other ostentatious features. Jaguars and raptors were often depicted alongside images of human sacrifice suggesting a connection between the ball game and divinity.

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Computer Reconstruction of the ancient ballcourt at Chichén Itzá.

Rules of play varied throughout different regions. During the games certain rules were enforced such as in the Maya game where only the knees and butt were allowed to touch and move the rubber ball. Archaeological interpretations suggest that plays were spread out along the court and the ball was passed at a fast rate. Players who could get the ball through the hoops were seen as the most talented. In order to score points:

1. an opposing player must miss a shot at the hoop,

2. the opposing team must be unable to keep possession of the ball following two bounces,

3. or the opposing team could cause the ball to go out of bounds.

Note that these rules are only suggestions as to how ballplayers may have played the game. Archaeologists are unsure of the precise rules because the scarce evidence we have is garnered from the interpretations made from sculptures, art, ball courts, and glyphs.  Occasionally we find artifacts in the form of equipment and gear the ballplayers may have used, but most artifacts did not preserve well.

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Ballgame hoop at Chichén Itzá.

This sport was very unique throughout the world from 1500 B.C. onward because it was a team sport. At the time, society was preoccupied with individual sports instead, such as jousting, wrestling, races, and other single-person sports. The ballgame was not only played to entertain spectators or to honor the gods, but also for exercise. Aspiring athletes may have practiced on the courts, most of which were men and boys. Women may have infrequently played as well. The courts may have served other functions as well. Events like theater performances and religious festivals may have been conducive to the centrality and style of the courts.

Some of the main archaeological evidence that displays the probable set up and play of the ballgame is found in groups of figurines.  Figurines found in El Opeño date as far back as 1500 B.C. All together the figurines represent a ballgame in which five male ballplayers stand around the court with manoplas (heavy mitts), which were most likely used to hit the rubber balls. There are three other figurines of women who pose as spectators of the game. Besides a helmet, all the ball players are nude. Many figurines are found elsewhere from different time periods.  The general style of the figurines suggests that the men often wore padding and carried some kind of equipment. The outfits and numbers of players on the court displayed through the figurines varies from region to region suggesting there were many different ways to play the ancient ballgame.

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Mesoamerican ballgame Tableau that dates back to 400 A.D.

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Olmec ballplayer.

Sources:

Whittington, E. Michael., and Douglas E. Bradley. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Print.

Pictures:
Maya Ballcourt. Digital image. Maya3D. N.p., 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.chichenitza-3d.com/chichen-itza/great_ballcourt.htm&gt;.

The Hoop. Digital image. Chicen Itza 1987. Galenfrysinger, 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.galenfrysinger.com/chichen_itza_1987.htm&gt;.

Mesoamerican Ballgame Tableau. Digital image. Mesoamerican Pottery. About.com, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://pottery.about.com/od/glazesurfaces/ig/Mesoamerican-Pottery/Mesoamerican-Ballgame.htm&gt;.

Olmec Ballplayer. Digital image. Sport/Activity: American Indigenous Games: Mesoamerican Ball Game. 4.4 Million Days, 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.4-4milliondays.com/disciplines-sport-20-286&gt;.

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