The Rubber Ball Game

A Universal Mesoamerican Sport

By: Christopher Jones

Originally Published in 1985

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An extremely athletic sport was played by the Aztec, the Maya, and other peo­ples of Prehispanic Mesoamerica, that area of complex societies in what is now Mexico and Central America (see Fig. 2). In the game, a heavy solid rubber ball about 6 inches in diameter was volleyed back and forth in a specially con­structed alley with sloping side walls. Rules usually stated that the ball he struck only with that part of the body from the waist to the knees. In some repre­sentations the players can be seen holding handled stones and wearing large yoke-, axe-, or palm-shaped objects tied at the waist. These have been found in archaeological sites dated from A.D. 800 to 1200.

Stone yoke, human heads carved on ends and front; knot and leaves over the front head.
Fig. 1. Carved stone “yoke” rom Veracruz, Mexico (ca. A.D. 800), probably worn around the waist during the game as a ball deflector.
Museum Object Number(s): 62-11-3

Like the “yoke” in Figure 1, they were made of stone and were probably of help in providing a weighted re­sistance against the heavy ball. Earlier ball players of the Classic period {AM. 300-800) wore a variety of thigh and waist protectors of leather, cloth, and wood (Figs. 6, 12). Aztec depictions of the sport at the time of the Spanish Conquest again show only a leather thigh pro­tector (Fig. 4).

Ball court alleys and stone yokes have also been found in Puerto Rico. These might have derived from Mesoamerica, as more cer­tainly did the rubber ball game of the American Southwest. A simpler version of the game without a spe­cial court was played by village tribes of the Amazon region of South America. It is possible that the Mesoamerican game originated there. The courts themselves date back to the Late Preclassic (around A. D. 0-300). (For a full description of the rubber ball game in the Americas see Stern 1950.)

Ball Court Remains at Tikal

Map of prehispanic mesoamerica.
Fig. 2. Prehispanic Mesoamerica

Five ball courts have been found in the ruins of Tikal (see Fig. 2), the Classic Maya site in northern Guatemala excavated by The University Museum between 1956 and 1970. That these courts were built for the playing of the rubber ball game is made clear by their characteristic long narrow alleys and sloping side surfaces. resembling others found all over Mesoamerica and matching descriptions by Spanish witnesses to the game.

The oldest, smallest and most central of the Tikal courts is located in the southeast corner of the Great Plaza (Fig. 3), the historical center of the site, where rows of carved stone monuments portraying the rulers are lined up in front of the temples under which these kings were buried. Another court is in the approximate center of the East Plaza, adjacent to the Great Plaza. The other three ball courts form the only triple court known in Mesoamerica, with iden­tical playing alleys side by side on the north edge of a large plaza just across a deep ravine southwest of the Great Plaza.

I had the opportunity to conduct extensive excava­tions in both the East Plaza and the Triple Ball Courts. (Details of ball court ar­chitecture, development, modifications, use, associ­ated artifacts and special de­posits are to he published in The University Museum’s Tikal Report series.) In this paper, I want to project some of the present knowledge about the game onto the archaeo­logical data From Tikal in order to gain more of an idea of what the game might have meant for the people of the community.

Map of Tikal showing locations of ball courts.
Fig. 3. The center of Tikal: a) the Great Plaza Ball Court; b) the East Plaza Ball Court; c) the Triple Ball Court.

Historical Evidence

By far the fullest eyewitness account of the Mesoamer­ican ball game comes to us from a manuscript by a 16th century Dominican friar, Diego Duran. His family moved to Mexico around 1541, a scant 20 years after the fall of Tenochtitlan to Cortes, and Duran grew to adulthood during that brief period when Spanish domination over Mexico still de­pended upon the cooperation and even the enthusiastic loyalty of the native nobility and populace. Aztec princes were made governors of the cities their fathers had ruled, and American and European youths studied Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec) together in schools started by the clergy. In one of his accounts of Aztec life, re­cently translated into English, Fa­ther Duran relates many personal anecdotes about the old ways, among them a delightful account of the prevalent sport (see below).

Drawing of the Aztec ball game.
Fig. 4. The Aztec ball game, as drawn for Diego Duran in the 16th century. Note the alley, the side rings, the ball and the wagers of jade beads and feathers. (Duran 1971).

An Eyewitness Account

“It was a highly entertaining game and amusement for the people, especiallyfor those who held it to be a pastime or entertainment. Among them there were those who played it with such skill and cunning that in one hour the ball (lid not stop bouncing from one end to the other, without a miss, [the players] using only their buttocks [and knees], never touching it with the hand, foot, calf, or arm. Both teams were so alert in keeping the ball bouncing that it was amazing. If watching a handball game among Spaniards gives us such pleasure and amazement on seeing the skill and lightness with which sonic play it, how much inure are to be praised those who with such cunning, trickery, and nim­bleness play it with their backsides or knees! It was considered a foul to touch [the ball] with the hand or any other part of the body except the parts I have mentioned buttocks and knees. Through this demanding sport excellent players were formed, and, aside From being esteemed by the sovereigns, they were given notable dignities, were made intimates of the royal house and court, and were honored with special insignia.

Many a time have I seen this game played, and to find out why the elders still extol it [1 asked them] to play it in the ancient way. But the most important [factor] was lacking, namely the enclo­sure where the contest took place, within which it was played, and the rings through which they cast and passed the hail. And it was a foolish in­sistence of mine to try to see today something which existed in ancient times. as different as the real thing from a picture. So that we can understand its form and begin to appreciate the skill and dexterity with which this game was played, it must be noted that ball courts existed in all the illustrious, civilized. and powerful cities and towns, in those ruled by either the community or the lords, the latter stressing [the game] in­ordinately. A regular competition existed between the two types of communities. [The ball courts] were en­closed with ornate and handsomely carved walls. The interior door was of stucco. finely polished and decorated with figures of the god and demons to whom the game was dedicated and whom the players held to be their pa­trons in that sport. These hall courts were larger in sonic places than in others. They were built in the shape that can be seen in the illustration: narrow in the middle and wide at the ends. The corners were built on pur­pose so that if the player’s ball fell into one it was lost and was considered a find. The height of the wall was any­where between eight and eleven feet high, running all around [the court]. Because of heathen custom, around [the wall] were planted wild palms or trees which give red seeds, whose wood is soft and light. Crucifixes and carved im­ages are made of it today. The sur­rounding walls were adorned with merlons or stone statues, all spaced out. [These places] became filled to bursting when there was a game of all the lords, when warlike activities ceased. owing to truces or other causes, thus permitting (the games).

Drawing of the ball cour of Copan.
Fig. 5. The ball court at Copan, Honduras, ca. A.D. 750. (From An Album of Maya Architecture, by Tatiana Proskouriakoff. New edition copyright 1963 by the University of Oklahoma Press.

The ball courts were anywhere between one hundred, one hundred fifty, and two hundred feet long. In the square corners (which served as ends or goals) a great number of players stood on guard to see that the ball did not pen­etrate. The main players stood in the center facing the ball, and so did the opponents since the game was carried out similarly to the way they fought in battle or in special contests. In the middle of the walls of this enclosure were fixed two stones facing one an­other, and each had a hole in the center. Each hole was surrounded by a carved image of the deity of the game. Its face was that of a monkey.

…One team put the ball through the hole of the stone on one side while the other side was used by the other team. The first to pass its ball through [the hole] won the prize. These stones also served as a division, for between them, on the floor, was a black or green stripe. This was done with a certain herb and no other, which is a sign of pagan belief. The ball always had to be passed across this line to win the game, because if the ball, projected by the backsides or by the knee, went bouncing along the floor and passed the stripe the width of two fingers, no fault was committed; but if it did not pass, it was considered a foul play. The man who sent the ball through the stone ring was surrounded by all. They honored him, sang songs of praise to him, and joined him in dancing. He was given a very special reward of feathers or mantles and breech-cloths, something highly prized. But what lie most prized was the honor involved: that was his great wealth. For he was honored as a man who had vanquished many and had won a battle.” (Duran 1971:313-315)

The Ball Game

Duran’s manuscript con­tains a drawing of the bail game (Fig. 4), probably done under his orders by a native artist. The architecture is rendered in Precolumbian style, although the human figures are drawn with the shading, perspective, and features of European tradition. The drawing shows two players wearing thin and abbreviated thigh padding (of leather) and arm wrappings, holding a ball of about the proper 6-inch di­ameter. The court, shown in plan in native style, is I-shaped, with en­closed end zones and with rings set in the side walls on the center line. Rings and enclosed end zones are standard features of most courts throughout Mesoamerica after A. D. 1200, but are lacking in all of the Tikal and in most of the Classic Maya ball courts. Over the players’ heads are drawn a string of large beads and a bundle of feathers. Since another illustration from Din– an’s manuscript depicts similar ob­jects over the heads of patolli players, these probably represent the stakes wagered in the play.

Time Periods in Maya History
A.D. 1520-1200 Late Postclassic (Tenochtitlan)
A.D. 1200-900 Early Postclassic
A.D. 900-600 Late Classic (Tikal)
A.D. 600-300 Early Classic (Tikal)
A.D. 300-0 Late Preclassic

Scoring apparently involved a double system, One based on a com­plex system of points as in tennis and the other occurring whenever a ball passed through a ring. In Aztec play, the penetration of one of the rings by a ball was an exceedingly rare event. One Spanish observer wrote that“A man, throwing it by hand at close range, could not put it in once in one hundred tries, nor in two hundred” (Motolinia, quoted in Stern 1950:60). When a player suc­ceeded in getting the ball through a ring he thereby won the game no matter what the point score had been. He and his teammates were at that moment free to snatch up as many of the opponents and spec­tators’ cloaks as they could manage.

Drawing of a carving of two ball players.
Fig. 6. Ball players on a carved ball court marker from Piedras Negras, Guatemala. (Satterthwait 1944: Fig. 22).

Points, on the other hand, according to Duran, were scored: 1) when the ball was struck by any part of the body other than the buttocks and upper Leg; 2) when it was allowed to land in or fly out over one of the “square corners” or end zones; and 3) when it died in the alley without being passed hack across the center line into enemy territory. Thus, since the earlier Classic Maya courts lacked the rings, and even in Aztec times the penetration of a ring overrode the point scoring, it seems clear that the original game involved point scoring alone.

Duran mentions a painted centerline on the alley floor between the rings, but does not tell of any divi­sion lines between the alley and the two end zones. On many Classic Maya courts, such as the one at Copan (Fig. 5), three flat stone markers arc set into the floor on the longitudinal axis, at the center point, and at the two ends of the alley. These clearly divide the playing floor into the same four zones as are implied by Duran’s de­scription: the opposing halves of the long alley where the ball can hit the floor but not be allowed to die, and the two end zones where it cannot even hit the floor. The presence of these three marker stones in many Classic Maya courts implies that the basic rules of point scoring were the same in those times as in the Aztec game. The fact that none exist in Tikal courts does not mean that other rules were at work there, be­cause unpreserved painted lines could have served the same pur­pose.

The lack of end zone enclosure walls in Tikal courts also cannot be taken as an indication that end zone play did not exist in the Maya hall game. This is demonstrated by the fact that Classic Maya court end zone areas were always left open when the courts were renovated or when newer buildings were con­structed nearby. For example, the rear of a large building north of the East Plaza ball court (Fig. 3) was placed at what would be the side limit to an end zone. This same side limit was again observed when the collapsing south ends of the ball court structures had to be rein­forced by buttresses. In the Copan ball court (Fig. 5), the north end zone is partially defined by en­closing stairways even though the south end zone was left completely unenclosed.

Drawing of a graffito of a ball game.
Fig. 7. A ball game played on the East Plaza Court at Tikal, as depicted in a graffito inside Structure 5D-43, just south of the court. (Trik and Kampen 1983: Fig. 46.)

One of Duran’s statements im­plies that there were two levels of ball play in Aztec times: “The main players stood in the center facing the ball, and so did the opponents, since the game was carried out sim­ilarly to the way they fought in battle or in special contests” (Duran 1971:513), This analogy to warfare fits closely what we know to be char­acteristic of battles described by Bernal Diaz, Hernan Cortes, and others. The objective seemed not to be so much to vanquish or kill the enemy as to take prisoners fir later sacrifice and keep the rest of the fire ready to fight another time. The on­going “flower wars” between the Mexicans of Tenochtitlan and neigh­boring unconquered Aztec towns such as Tlaxcala seemed to be fought for the winning of personal honor or wealth. The killing or capture of an important leader at the front of his troops often signaled in itself the end of the battle. In this type of warfare, attention would have often focused on individual combats be­tween heroes, much as is described in Homer. This then might explain the analogy to the ball game.

Alley play at the front line would be dominated by one or more main players on each team, backed by any number of assistants in the end zones. As in our volleyball, the backing players would make certain the ball did not touch the floor and would pass it up to their main players in the alley, where it would be propelled on in some spectacular-fashion into enemy territory or through one of the rings. The shape of the ball court, with its narrowed juncture line between opponents (the alley of the Tikal East Plaza court measured 8 by 25 m.) and its broadening out behind mirrors the pyramid pattern in warfare and in­deed in the social hierarchy itself: Although the number of backers in the Aztec enclosed end zones would be limited, any number of players could have participated in Tikes unlimited end zones. In such a sit­uation, the distinction between participant and spectator would not be strong.

Most descriptions of ball court play show single opponents, as in Duran’s illustration (Fig. 3) and in a carved stone panel from the Classic Maya site of Piedras Negras. Gua­temala, found on a University Mu­seum expedition (Fig. 6). A graffito (Fig. 7) I found in a room of the building south of the Tikal East Plaza court (Fig. 9) shows an appar­ently eyewitness scene of Four players and a trumpet-blowing spec­tator in the court. Two players are diving onto the ground and two others are standing behind them.

Drawing of layout of the East Plaza Ball Court of Tikal.
Fig. 8. The East Plaza Ball Court at Tikal (Structures 5D-42 and 5E-31).

Celebrity matches between single individuals are described in Aztec history, as when Axayacatl, the father of Montezuma, wagered a year’s tribute income plus some towns against the city of Xochimilco. He lost to his opponent, the king of Xochimilco, and had him assassi­nated. (I have wondered if the story told by guides at the Maya site of Chichen Itza that the decapitated ball player shown there was the winner rather than the loser derives from this account.) In another tale, Montezuma himself played Netza­hualpilli, the king of Texcoco, staking three turkeys against his opponents entire realm. Back-up as­sistant players, if they took part in such events, would likely be left out of both the verbal descriptions and the ancient illustrations of the courts and the players.

Further Archaeological Findings

Although the recent advances in decipherment have yielded no such stories of the ball-playing inclinations of Maya rulers, the archaeology of Tikal has revealed two interesting connec­tions between the sport and at least one Tikal sovereign. The Great Plaza and the adjacent East Plaza were resurfaced several times from the 1st to the 8th centuries A.D., with a series of hard, smooth and still preserved plaster coatings. We discovered after analyzing the ex­cavation data that the East Plaza ball court (Fig. 8) and its southern shrine building (Fig. 9) were contemporary with a complete resurfacing of the East Plaza, the Great Plaza, and the North Terrace. This enormous project also included construction of the first version of the causeway leading north out of the East Plaza.

Also built at this time was Struc­ture 5D-32, a large temple erected to cover the tomb chamber which we number Burial 195. George Guillemin of The University Mu­seum staff found within that tomb, miraculously preserved in silt, the in situ traces of a three-ribbed U-shaped wooden hoop or yoke (Fig. 10) such as was worn by ball players portrayed in Maya sculpture, painted pottery, and clay figurines (Figs. 6, 12). The ends of the hoop were painted black, then red, then stuccoed and painted green. When the hollows within the stucco were filled with plaster, the three-ribbed ends were extracted whole (Fig. 11). The thin wood of the hoop would have been flexible enough to be wrapped and tied about the waist or around a waist padding. There is little doubt that this is ball game equipment. Near the hoop was found a darkened area of organic substance, about 6 inches (16 cm.) in diameter, that Guillemin thought to be the remains of a rubber ball.

Drawing of a building near a ball court, showing decorative carvings.
Fig. 9. Building south of the East Plaza Ball Court alley (Structure 5D-43).

Using texts found on several of the Burial 195 vessels, we were able to identify the tomb occupant as ‘Animal Skull,’ 22nd ruler of Tikal. On the basis of other inscriptions, we can place the time of his burial—and thus the construction of the ball court—during the mid-7th century.

The late 6th and early 7th cen­turies do not seem to have been good ones for Tikal. No carved mon­uments nor large construction pro­jects can be tied to that 100-year period, and almost every one of the earlier monuments had been smashed, broken in two or partially erased. I had speculated earlier Jones 1977) that Tikal’s revival oc­curred dining the 8th century reign of Animal Skull’s grandson. It would appear, however, from the size of the construction projects at the death of Animal Skull, that Tikal’s fortunes had been reversed and an architectural renaissance was al­ready well on its way by the mid-7th century.

The construction of the East Plaza ball court near to that in the Great Plaza meant that two courts stood close to each other in the center of the site. This new court, large and elaborately decorated, was in the center of the East Plaza, where the principle causeways of the site would converge and where a later quadrangle of low buildings would constitute what we suspect to be the Tikal marketplace.

Remains of a ball game hoop found in a burial.
Fig. 10. Traces of a wooden ball game hoop in the silt of Burial 195 at Tikal.

Aztec ball courts were generally placed in or next to the market­places of the towns and cities (Stern 1950:51). This is a fitting place for a game in which so much was staked, for as Duran remarks: “The nobility, the lords, captains, braves and im­portant men bet jewels, slaves, precious stones, fine mantles, the trappings of war, and women’s fin­ery” (1971:315). Clearly a great deal of market commodity was changing hands during the play in both cities, much of which probably came out of or flowed back into the nearby market stalls.

Two ball courts occupied the Great Compound at the Aztec cap­ital of Tenochtitlan, according to Bernadino de Sahagun (Stern 1950:52,65), although neither one has yet been located in excavation. One, located in the center of the plaza, was called the “Teotlachco,” or Divine Ball Court. It was the scene, in the 15th twenty-clay month of each year, of a sacrificial re-enactment of the crucial mytho­logical event in the formation of the Aztec culture, the sacrifice (in an original Teotlachco) of Coyolxauqui, the moon, by her brother Huitzilo­pochtli, the sun and patron deity of the Aztecs. All we know about the other court, the “Texcatlachco” or Mirror Ball Court, is that it was sit­uated between the bases of the temples and was the scene of sacrificesunder the sign of Omacatl.” which probably refers to the day Two Reed on which each 52-year cycle of Aztec history began.

At Tikal, the mid-7th century East Plaza court was built directly over an Early Classic (A.D. 300­600) pair of twin pyramids at ap­proximately the same time that the first of seven or eight pyramid pairs was constructed. These complexes, called Twin Pyramid Groups, are for the most part dated securely through hieroglyphic inscriptions to the ends of katuns, the important 20-year periods of Maya history writing. Since a new pyramid group seems to have been constructed for every katun through the 8th cen­tury, they probably housed the cer­emonies marking each successive katun. On the other hand, the East Plaza pyramid set, which the ball court buried, had apparently been used fir more than just one or two katuns, for there is evidence of its stairways having been refurbished at least once during its existence. Therefore, the spot chosen for the new ball court had probably been the stage of former new cycle cere­monies for many scores of years.

Cultural Implications

It seems to me that the dichotomy between the two ventral ball courts in both Tenochtitlan and Tikal is similar. One court is connected to commu­nity and tribe. in the Aztec case through ritual re-enactment of a tribal creation myth. and in Tikal through greater antiquity and prox­imity to the ancient tombs and monuments of the ancestral rulers. The other court, in both cases, is associated with ceremonies of the oncoming cycles of time, the Aztec 52-year period and the Maya katun, rather than with the past. At Tikal. the construction of the new court was at the beginning of an expansive, outward-looking period in which grandeur predominated, as expressed most noticeably by the five soaring great temples and the long straight causeways, but also by the successively larger Twin Pyr­amid Groups and by the many great stone palace buildings erected in all parts of the site.

Portion of the remains of a ball game hoop.
Fig. 11. One end of the Tikal Burial 195 ball game hoop, showing its stucco covering and its three-ribbed form.

I would suggest that this contrast between the two ball courts in Tikal and Tenochtitlan points out a basic similarity between the dynamic sit­uations of the two communities in spite of their differences in size (an estimated 50,000 for Tikal and 200,000 for the Aztec capital). Both 8th century Tikal and 16th century Tenochtitlan seemed to he in the process of transformation from a seat of a restricted city-state within a constellation of independent and equal neighboring states to a me­tropolis, capital of a confederation of cities which recognized a paramount leader.

It is becoming clear from the inscriptions of the other Maya cen­ters that Tikal never became as successful as Tenochtitlan in domi­nating its region politically or mili­tarily, but it seems also clear from the grand architecture of Late Classic Tikal that an attempt at a metropolitan “first among equals” image was made at Tikal and not at any other Late Classic Maya center. Most of the other Classic Maya sites, such as Copan, Quirigua, and Palenque, remained relatively small and are visually and architecturally unified by a single centrally placed ball court. The same unified aspect is presented by the location of the 9th century Uxmal court and later by the great oversized 10th century ballcourt at Chichen Itza, where ap­parently some degree of domination over a large Maya region was finally accomplished.

Any universal history of ideas must try to discover some adaptive value within every detail of cultural form. As in the case of many biolog­ical forms, this discovery is often dif­ficult. Our admiration of the beau­ties and accomplishment which the forms express have often kept us from asking ourselves of what use they were to the organisms or cul­tures that possessed or made them. Sports are no exception. We well know the force that sports exert upon the peoples of the world today in instilling feelings of both nation­alism and internationalism.

I have tried to demonstrate that in spite of the fact that we only know of Tikal sports archaeologically, nev­ertheless through connecting facts gained from excavation with ac­counts of the game as played by related peoples at the time of Eu­ropean contact, we can make rea­sonable transferrals of analogy back in time and fit them into what we see at Tikal, not only analogies of rules of play and of who played the game, but also of symbolic connec­tions to the larger cultural patterns of the community.

Fragments of figurines wearing ball game hoops.
Fig. 12. Clay figurines from Tikal wearing three-ribbed ball game hoops around their waists.

Cite This Article

Jones, Christopher. "The Rubber Ball Game." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 2 (August, 1985): -. Accessed April 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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