Mesoamerican ballcourt

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Ceramic sculpture from a Western Mexican tomb showing players engaged in the Mesoamerican ballgame. Western Mexican tomb culture tableau (Tom Aleto).jpg
Ceramic sculpture from a Western Mexican tomb showing players engaged in the Mesoamerican ballgame.

A Mesoamerican ballcourt is a large masonry structure of a type used in Mesoamerica for over 2,700 years to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, particularly the hip-ball version of the ballgame. [1] More than 1,300 ballcourts have been identified, 60% in the last 20 years alone.[ when? ] [2] Although there is a tremendous variation in size, in general all ballcourts are the same shape: a long narrow alley flanked by two walls with horizontal, vertical, and sloping faces. Although the alleys in early ballcourts were open-ended, later ballcourts had enclosed end-zones, giving the structure an I, heavily serifed.png -shape when viewed from above.

Masonry The building of structures from individual units of stone, brick, or block

Masonry is the building of structures from individual units, which are often laid in and bound together by mortar; the term masonry can also refer to the units themselves. The common materials of masonry construction are brick, building stone such as marble, granite, and limestone, cast stone, concrete block, glass block, and adobe. Masonry is generally a highly durable form of construction. However, the materials used, the quality of the mortar and workmanship, and the pattern in which the units are assembled can substantially affect the durability of the overall masonry construction. A person who constructs masonry is called a mason or bricklayer. These are both classified as construction trades.

Mesoamerica Cultural area in the Americas

Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area in North America. It extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, and within this region pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas. In the 16th century, European diseases like smallpox and measles caused the deaths of upwards of 90% of the indigenous people. It is one of five areas in the world where ancient civilization arose independently, and the second in the Americas along with Norte Chico (Caral-Supe) in present-day Peru, in the northern coastal region.

The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations played since 1400 B.C. by the pre-Columbian people of Ancient Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places during the millennia, and a newer more modern version of the game, ulama, is still played in a few places by the indigenous population.

Contents

Ballcourts were also used for functions other than, or in addition to, ballgames. Ceramics from western Mexico show ballcourts being used for other sporting endeavours, including what appears to be a wrestling match. [3] It is also known from archaeological excavations that ballcourts were the sites of sumptuous feasts, although whether these were conducted in the context of the ballgame or as another event entirely is not as yet known. [4] The siting of the most prominent ballcourts within the sacred precincts of cities and towns, as well as the votive deposits found buried there, demonstrates that the ballcourt were places of spectacle and ritual.

Distribution

Ballgame court at Monte Alban Monte Alban-12-05oaxaca024.jpg
Ballgame court at Monte Albán
One of the ballcourts at Xochicalco. Note the characteristic
-shape, as well as the rings set above the apron at center court. The setting sun of the equinox shines through the ring. Xochicalco ballcourt 2.jpg
One of the ballcourts at Xochicalco. Note the characteristic I, heavily serifed.png -shape, as well as the rings set above the apron at center court. The setting sun of the equinox shines through the ring.

Although ballcourts are found within most Mesoamerican sites, they are not equally distributed across time or geography. For example, the Late Classic site of El Tajin, the largest city of the ballgame-obsessed Classic Veracruz culture, has at least 18 ballcourts while Cantona, a nearby contemporaneous site, sets the record with 24. In contrast, Northern Chiapas [6] and the northern Maya Lowlands [7] have relatively few, and ballcourts are conspicuously absent at some major sites, including Teotihuacan, Bonampak, and Tortuguero. [8]

Mesoamerican chronology Divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods

Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of prehispanic Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian, the Archaic, the Preclassic or Formative, the Classic (250–900CE), and the Postclassic, Colonial (1521–1821), and Postcolonial (1821–present). The periodization of Mesoamerica is based on archaeological, ethnohistorical, and modern cultural anthropology research. The endeavor to create cultural histories of Mesoamerica dates to the early twentieth century, with ongoing work by archeologists, ethnohistorians, historians, and cultural anthropologists.

Classic Veracruz culture

Classic Veracruz culture refers to a cultural area in the north and central areas of the present-day Mexican state of Veracruz, a culture that existed from roughly 100 to 1000 CE, or during the Classic era.

Chiapas State of Mexico

Chiapas, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas, is one of the 31 states that along with the federal district of Mexico City make up the 32 federal entities of Mexico. It is divided into 124 municipalities as of September 2017 and its capital city is Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Other important population centers in Chiapas include Ocosingo, Tapachula, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Comitán and Arriaga. It is the southernmost state in Mexico. It is located in Southeastern Mexico, and it borders the states of Oaxaca to the west, Veracruz to the northwest and Tabasco to the north, and by the Petén, Quiché, Huehuetenango and San Marcos departments of Guatemala to the east and southeast. Chiapas has a coastline along the Pacific Ocean to the south.

It is thought that ballcourts are an indication of decentralization of political and economic power: areas with a strong centralized state, such as the Aztec Empire, have relatively few ballcourts while areas with smaller competing polities have many. [9] At Cantona, for example, the extraordinary number of ballcourts is likely due to the many and diverse cultures residing there under a relatively weak state. [10]

Sovereign state Political organization with a centralized independent government

In international law, a sovereign state, sovereign country, or simply state, is a nonphysical juridical entity that is represented by one centralized government that has sovereignty over a geographic area. International law defines sovereign states as having a permanent population, defined territory, one government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood that a sovereign state is neither dependent on nor subjected to any other power or state.

Size and shape

Ballcourts vary considerably in size. One of the smallest, at Tikal site, is only one-sixth the size of the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza. Despite the variation in size, ballcourts' playing alleys are generally the same shape, with an average length-to-width ratio of 4-to-1, although some regional variation is found: Central Mexico, for example, has slightly longer playing alleys, and the Maya Northern Lowlands slightly wider. [11]

Tikal Ruins of major ancient Maya city

Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city, which was likely to have been called Yax Mutal, found in a rainforest in Guatemala. It is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala. Situated in the department of El Petén, the site is part of Guatemala's Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The following is a comparison of the size of the playing alleys for several well-known ballcourts. [12]

SiteCulturelength (meters)width (meters)length-to-width ratio
Xochicalco Xochicalco5195.7
Monte Alban Zapotec 2655.2
El Tajin Classic Veracruz 126255.1
Chichen Itza (Grand Ballcourt) Maya 9630.43.2
Tikal (Small ceremonial) Maya 1653.2
Yaxchilan II Maya 1853.6
Tula Toltec 41104.1

Evolution

The earliest ballcourts were doubtless temporary marked off areas of compacted soil much like those used to play the modern ulama game, the Mesoamerican ballgame's descendant.

Ballcourt terminology. Not all ballcourts have all these surfaces. Mesoamerican Ballcourt terminology schema.svg
Ballcourt terminology. Not all ballcourts have all these surfaces.

Paso de la Amada, Soconusco, along the Pacific coast boasts the oldest ballcourt yet identified, dated to approximately 1400 BC. [13] This narrow ballcourt has an 80 m × 8 m (262 ft × 26 ft) flat playing alley defined by two flanking earthen mounds with "benches" running along their length.

By the Early Classic, ballcourt designs began to feature an additional pair of mounds set some distance beyond the ends of the alley as if to keep errant balls from rolling too far away. By the Terminal Classic, the end zones of many ballcourts were enclosed, creating the well-known I, heavily serifed.png -shape.

The evolution of the ballcourt is, of course, more complex than the foregoing suggests, and with over 1300 known ballcourts, there are exceptions to any generalization.

Cross sections of some of the more typical ballcourts. Jacinto Quirarte has classified Copan, Uxmal, and Xochicalco at Type I, Monte Alban as Type II, Chichen Itza as Type III, and Toluquilla as Type IV. Mesoamerican Ballcourt cross-sections 3.svg
Cross sections of some of the more typical ballcourts. Jacinto Quirarte has classified Copan, Uxmal, and Xochicalco at Type I, Monte Alban as Type II, Chichen Itza as Type III, and Toluquilla as Type IV.

Walls and surfaces

Unlike the compacted earth of the playing alley, the side walls of the formal ballcourts were lined with stone blocks. These walls featured 3 or more horizontal and sloping surfaces. Vertical surfaces are less common, but they begin to replace the sloping apron during the Classic era, and are a feature of several of the largest and best-known ballcourts, including the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza and the North and South Ballcourts at El Tajin. There the vertical surfaces were covered with elaborate reliefs showing scenes, particularly sacrificial scenes, related to the ballgame.

Orientation

Most prominent ballcourts were part of their town or city's central monumental precinct and as such they share the orientation of pyramids and other structures there. Since many Mesoamerican cities and towns were oriented to a few degrees east of north (roughly 15° east of north), [16] it is not surprising to find that in the Valley of Oaxaca, for example, ballcourt orientations also tend to be a few degrees east of north, or at right angles to that. [17]

Other than this general trend, no consistent orientation of ballcourts throughout Mesoamerica has been found, [18] although some patterns do emerge at the regional level. In the Cotzumalhuapa region, for example, open-ended ballcourts with a north-south orientation were earlier than east-west enclosed courts. [19]

Court marker from the Mayan site of Lubaantun showing two players volleying. Note the rounded bottom that anchors the marker into the court. LubaantunBallmarkerPeabodyB.jpg
Court marker from the Mayan site of Lubaantun showing two players volleying. Note the rounded bottom that anchors the marker into the court.

Rings, markers, and other features

Stone rings, tenoned into the wall at mid-court, appeared in the Terminal Classic era. Actually sending a ball through the ring must have been a rare occurrence. The players could not use their hands or even feet to guide the ball. Moreover, the rings were only slightly larger than the ball itself and were located at no small distance from the playing alley. At Chichen Itza, for example, they were set 6 meters above the alley, while at Xochicalco they set at the top of an 11-meter-wide apron, 3 meters above the playing alley (see lead photo). [20]

As shown on Aztec codices, court markers were also used on many ballcourts to establish the dividing line between teams – one set into the playing alley floor at exact mid-court, the other two placed against each side wall. However, such placement is not universal. Two ancient ceramic ballcourt models recovered from western Mexico show the three markers placed length-wise along the court: one (again) at exact mid-court with the remaining pair set midway between the walls at either end of the playing alley. [21] The ballcourt markers at Copan are also arranged in this manner. The ballcourt at Monte Alban, meanwhile, has only one court marker, placed at the exact center of the court.

These sunken court markers are almost invariably round and usually decorated with ballgame-related scenes or iconography. Other markers were set into ballcourt walls. [22] Many researchers have also proposed that above-ground, moveable objects, for example stone hachas , were also used as court markers. [23]

Various sculptures, stelae, and other stonework were also important components of the ballcourt. At the ballcourt at Tonina, for example, 6 sculptures of prone captives overhang the apron, a pair at mid-court and a pair at each of the ends of the cornice. Unfortunately, rings, markers and sculptures are more portable and more prone to removal or destruction than the permanent ballcourt infrastructure, and at some ballcourts these features have been lost forever.


Maya stairs

Many – or even most – Maya depictions of ballgame play are shown against a backdrop of stairs. [24] Conversely, Maya staircases will occasionally feature reliefs of ballgame scenes or ballgame-related glyphs on their risers. The most famous of these are the Hieroglyphic Stairs at Structure 33 in Yaxchilan, where 11 of the 13 risers feature ballgame-related scenes. In these scenes, it appears as if the players were actually playing the ball against the stairs in what would seem to be a Maya version of stoop ball.

The association of stairs and the ballgame is not well understood. Linda Schele and Mary Miller propose that the depictions record historic events and in particular record a "form of play ... distinct from the game conducted on the courts", one that "probably followed immediately after[ward] on steps adjacent to the ballcourts". [25] Other researchers are skeptical. Marvin Cohodas, for example, proposes that the "stairs" are instead stepped platforms associated with human sacrifice, [26] while Carolyn Tate views the Yaxchilan stair scenes as "the Underworld segment of a cosmogram". [27]

Notes

  1. Cohodas states that the masonry courts were used "exclusively" for the hip-ball game.
  2. Taladoire, p. 98. Note that there are slightly over 200 ballcourts also identified in the American Southwest which are not included in this total, since these are outside Mesoamerica and there is significant discussion whether these areas were used for ballplaying or not.
  3. Day, p. 69.
  4. Zender, p. 10, who cites John Gerard Fox (1996) "Playing with Power" in Current Anthropology.
  5. Uriarte, p. 23.
  6. Taladoire and Colsenet.
  7. Kurjack, Maldonado C., Robertson.
  8. Taladoire, p. 99.
  9. Santley et al., p. 14.
  10. Day, p. 76, and Taladoire, p. 114.
  11. Quirarte, p.209-210.
  12. Quirarte, p. 205-208.
  13. See Hill, Blake, and Clark (1998); Schuster (1998).
  14. Chinkultic's northern endzone is 3 times as deep as the southern endzone, perhaps due to the stairs gracing the northern end. Taldoire and Colsenet, p. 169.
  15. Quirarte. Taladoire refers to this type as a palangana-style ballcourts, after the Spanish word for basin (p. 106).
  16. Aveni and Gibbs. Other researchers give other estimates or averages, but there is a remarkable consistency across time and space to this general orientation.
  17. Kowalewski et al., p. 38.
  18. Taladoire.
  19. Parsons, p. 200.
  20. Quirarte.
  21. Kelley, p. 97. An example of a Western Mexico ceramic court (without court markers, alas) can be seen here.
  22. Whittington, p. 168-169, shows a fine example of a parrot head from Xochicalco.
  23. The Hudson Museum, University of Maine website Archived 2007-12-01 at the Wayback Machine and the British Museum website, among other sources.
  24. Schele and Miller (p. 247) say that "most" Maya depictions of ballgame action include stairs.
  25. Schele and Miller, p. 247.
  26. This is only a brief summary of Cohodas' viewpoint – for a full version, see p. 264.
  27. Tate, p. 97.

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A ring at Chichen Itza. This ring was set some 6 meters (20 feet) above the playing alley, making it extremely difficult to pass the heavy ball through the hole. Chichen Itza Goal.jpg
A ring at Chichen Itza. This ring was set some 6 meters (20 feet) above the playing alley, making it extremely difficult to pass the heavy ball through the hole.
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