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Saturday Art and Archaeology: The BallCourt in Mayan Culture

Ballcourt at Lamanai

The excavation of Mayan centers of worship and society have revealed that the ballcourt played an essential role in their community and is included in the ceremonial structures that life existed in. At Lamanai, pictured above, there are remains of a distinct playing ground, and in many places the representation of ball games and courts have been discovered.

The rules of ?llamaliztli are not known, but judging from its descendant, ulama, they were probably similar to racquetball,[3] where the aim is to keep the ball in play. The stone ballcourt goals are a late addition to the game.

In the most widespread version of the game, the players struck the ball with their hips, although some versions allowed the use of forearms, rackets, bats, or handstones. The ball was made of solid rubber and weighed as much as 4 kg (9 lbs), and sizes differed greatly over time or according to the version played.

The game had important ritual aspects, and major formal ballgames were held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice. The sport was also played casually for recreation by children and perhaps even women.[4]


Ballcourts were public spaces used for a variety of elite cultural events and ritual activities like musical performances and festivals, and of course, the ballgame. Pictorial depictions often show musicians playing at ballgames, while votive deposits buried at the Main Ballcourt at Tenochtitlan contained miniature whistles, ocarinas, and drums. A pre-Columbian ceramic from western Mexico shows what appears to be a wrestling match taking place on a ballcourt.[44]

Like much of ritual, the representations of the play has left us with artwork that tells a story about the time of Mayan civilization. We can only guess at the form and meaning of the game, but it was a vital part of the ceremonial life that went on in the now ruins we are excavating throughout Mesoamerica.

Across Mesoamerica, ballcourts were built and used for many generations. Although ballcourts are found within most sizable Mesoamerican ruins, they are not equally distributed across time or geography. For example, theLate 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.[40] In contrast, northern Chiapas[41] and the northern Maya Lowlands[42] have relatively few, and ballcourts are conspicuously absent at some major sites, including TeotihuacanBonampak, and Tortuguero, although ?llamaliztli iconography has been found there.[43]

Ancient cities with particularly fine ballcourts in good condition include TikalYaxhaCopánIximcheMonte AlbánUxmalChichen ItzaYagul,XochicalcoMixco Viejo and Zaculeu.

There seems to be a tradition of human sacrifice associated with the games again that we can only guess; but as with much representation, it shows a meaning to the ceremonies which gives scholars puzzles to solve but no answers. Ritual figures with human heads featured are among the many art works recovered from the region, and have been featured before in my previous posts.

Ballcourt structure at Copan


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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.