The Ballgame

The Ballgame in Mesoamerica

Many of the cultures of Mesoamerica played some variation of ballgame, using balls manufactured from natural rubber extracted from trees. From at least 1500 BC through 1500 AD, the ballgame was an important feature of most of the major cultural centers stretching from the present-day Southwestern United States to Honduras and El Salvador. Early evidence of the game is found in ceramic figures made by the Olmec, arguably the founding culture of Mesoamerica, and Spanish accounts describe the activity as practiced by the Aztecs of central Mexico some 3,000 years later. While scholars offer many interpretations of the ballgame’s meaning and method of play, it seems to be generally accepted as an activity laden with symbolic and ritualistic meaning for the playing cultures. Researchers base their interpretations on various sources: wall paintings and carved reliefs depicting ballgame scenes, codices, ballcourt architecture at archaeological sites, anthropomorphic figurines depicting ball players in costume, stone regalia worn or symbolic of items worn by players, written accounts by Spanish witnesses to the ballgame, and ethnographic observations of contemporary practitioners of ballgames in current-day Mexico. The general sources below contain descriptions of how the ballgame might have been played, as well as interpretations of its many accoutrements and significance within Mesoamerican society and cosmology.

General Reference:

Bradley, Douglas E. Life, Death and Duality: A Handbook of The Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Collection of Ritual Ballgame Sculpture. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1997. (The Snite Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 1) Goldwater: T3A B81L

Collection catalogue with an excellent introductory overview of the history of the ballgame played in Mesoamerica, from its origins among the Olmec around 1500 B.C. through its continued performance in the Classic period (250-900 A.D.). The essay explains the functions and stylistic tendencies, and reviews scholarly attempts at symbolic interpretation of ballgame equipment. Well-researched, succinct summary. Collection images include brief and helpful interpretive text­.

Leyenaar, Ted J. J. (Texts) Ulama: Jeu de Balle des Olmeques aux Azteques/Ballgame, From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. Lausanne: Musee Olympique, 1997.

Overview of ballcourt architecture and regalia. Most interesting is the author’s summary of historical texts (almost all written accounts by Colonial-era Spanish observers) that describe the ballgame and its players. These excerpts provide interesting anecdotes about the methods of play and reveal the concerns and perceptions of Europeans observing Native activities. The author is also particularly interested in the modern variations of the ballgame still practiced in Mexico, and attempts to draw continuity between the prehispanic and contemporary versions.

Miller, Mary Ellen. “The Ballgame”. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University. Vol. 48, No. 2 (1989) pp. 22-31 (Jstor)

Basic introductory curatorial article on the ballgame and its accoutrements. Written prior to the publication of major ballcourt works and thus, not as current.

Scarborough, Vernon L. and David R. Wilcox, Eds. The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1991. Goldwater: TG M58

Extensive scholarly compilation considers the ballgame in its geographic diversity across Mesoamerica, and apparently represents much of the notable scholarship in the field. Part III features interpretations of the ballgame’s iconography and symbolism. Particularly relevant articles are highlighted below under pertinent collection objects.

Whittington, E. Michael, Ed. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Goldwater: TG S76

Exhibition catalogue includes numerous brief essays on various aspects of the ballgame throughout Mexico, including performance and symbolic meanings, gender roles, ethnographic studies, and game rules and equipment. Exhibition photography depicts a range of objects and interpretations useful for drawing comparisons to Metropolitan holdings.

Collections Objects

1978.412.16 Palma with Skeletal Head Figure [Mexico, Veracruz] *

1978.412.15 Frog Yoke [Mexico, Veracruz] *

00.5.59 Bird Palma [Mexico, Veracruz] *

1978.412.151 Fish Hacha [Mexico, Veracruz] *

1980.418 Ballcourt Marker [Mexico; Teotihuacan] *

1989.28 Ball Player (?) [Mexico, Nopiloa] *

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