Ancient Ballgame Term Paper

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Ancient Ballgame of Mesoamerica

There are many ancient art forms that are acknowledged today as culturally enriching. The dramatic plays of ancient Greece are revered as great artistic accomplishments. The development of writing and ship building by the Phoenicians is recognized as a ground breaking achievement that changed the course of society. Yet some cultures do not receive this kind of acknowledgment for their customs, inventions, and creations which have nonetheless steered the course of humanity to a great degree. While the Olympics of Greek ancestry have gained high acclaim worldwide for the impact they have had on athletics and culture, other ancient sporting traditions have been glossed over by mainstream history. Games and sports were an integral part of the cultures of Central America and Mexico, including Volador (high pole), patolli (dice), stilts, hunting, and jai alai. One instance of a seriously underrepresented athletic influence is the most important sport of this region, the Mesoamerican ballgame, which was played for over three thousand years by the people of that region in pre-Columbian times. These ballgames, in fact, predated the Olympics by at least 500 years! Because this game was played over a long period of time and was embraced by people of different nations over a large land area, it is actually a family of games that are closely linked. To the Aztecs, the ancient ballgame was known as tlachtli. To those in central Mexico, it was called tlaxtli. To the Mayans of the Yucatan region, the game was called poc-ta-tok. The game continues to be played by the Sinaloa people, who refer to the game as ulama. (Wikipedia) to all of these people, this game had significant cultural and religious value. The traditions sparked by this ancient ball game are important not only because of their historical value, but also because they have influenced modern society in many ways. The construction of the ball field, the design of the playing system, the social and religious implications, and the influence on modern culture make the ancient ballgame noteworthy and admirable.

The ball courts designed to be the playing fields for the Mesoamerican ballgame were in and of themselves incredible feats of architectural wonder. The ball courts were built all across Mesoamerica, and for many generations they were used as gathering places for this most sacred sport. (Wikipedia) the shapes and sizes of the courts vary somewhat because of the wide range of use, but many of the features of these sites are shared throughout the areas. Many ruins that have been discovered reveal that some population centers had multiple ball courts, such as the important Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) area which featured several courts. Others only had one court; the number and size of the ball courts was proportional based on the population of the area. (Cordes) Just about every single town or population center of any significance had at least one ball court. In areas where there was a much smaller population, people may have traveled to the nearest urban-type area to use the ball court built there. The central Mayan city was built for religious reason, and therein was a ball court. In fact, every single Mayan city did have a ballcourt, and their pol-a-tok game was played as part of the religious ceremonies that took place in the central city area. (Finney) "There have been over 600 ball courts found in Mexico alone, and it is believed that there are many others yet to be found." (Uva) the area of Chichen-Itza has at least 23 confirmed ball courts. In the Yucatan, at least thirty courts have been confirmed. It is in this Yucatan region that the courts themselves are said to have originated. The Mayan King Topilzian is credited with the introduction of the traditional ball court to the playing of the region. In Copan, Honduras, a ball court dating back to some time between 200 and 300 a.D (the Early Classic period) was found, though this is not considered to be among the first of the ball courts as the construction of the court is too well developed for it to be from the early stages of the game. In fact, it is believed that the first formal ball courts were built at least several hundred years before this one.

The specifics of each ball court vary depending on the artistic taste of the architects of each city, the variation of the ball game that was to be played in that court, and the population of the area, though it is often compared to the modern football field to give modern sports fans a visual image for reference. Many features do remain consistent throughout the ball courts. The court is shaped like the letter "I," though the dimensions were not consistent. Generally, the length of the courts was between two hundred and three hundred feet long, and between twenty and fifty feet wide. This range allowed for teams and audiences of varying sizes to utilize the courts. The main longer corridor of the court would be surrounded by parallel stone walls, which were both sloping and smoothly built. These walls were generally between fifteen and thirty feet. Benches, where substitute players would sit to be on call for the game, would line these walls. The walls were ornately decorated with incredible carvings and stone embellishments, such as the commonly popular parrot head carving. The stone ring, central to the game, was commonly about two feet in diameter. These were installed at right angles to the ground, at least half-way up the wall. Some courts had only one of these rings, while others had three rings. Parot-head markers were placed on the ends of the court, and these were used for score keeping. Each side of the court had a raised temple area, for this was a sacred sport deeply ingrained in the religious aspects of the culture. Spectators were seated on staircases that resembled modern stadium seating. The court acoustics were incredible, and the sound of the ball near the rings would echo from wall to wall throughout the entire structure. "A whisper from end can be heard clearly at the other end 500 feet away and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day/night. Archaeologists engaged in the reconstruction noted that the sound transmission became stronger and clearer as they proceeded." (Finney) the courts would be decorated with the skulls of victims and game losers that were killed. They would also have intesive landscaping around the courts, such as palm trees. The design of the fields was not only intended to be visually and artistically stunning, but also functional on many levels. The courts were of course built to allow for the best game play and experience for spectators. However, the courts additionally provided security for the people of the tribes. "The courts were a magnificent sight, while functionally providing a powerful defensive against the Spanish and alien Indian tribes." (Cordes)

Some of the ball courts designed had interesting differences from others. For example, the Chichen-Itza Ballcourt is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. However, this cour has no vault, unlike the common design. There is no discontinuity between the walls at all. In fact, this court is completely open to the sky, while some courts have areas that are covered. The ball court in the Mayan Copan is quite different from the traditional court. It does not have the stone rings that are an integral part of the game normally. "Instead there are 6 macaw heads (the sacred bird) which were the "goals" to be aimed at." (Finney) the architectural differences are said to have a significant difference in how the game is played, for in this unconventional arena it is believes that the Mayans would sacrifice the losers of the game, but in courts with stone rings instead of bird head targets, the losers would not be sacrificed.

The functionality of the game play design is also an impressive art form. "Early Spanish writers, who witnessed the ball games as played by the Aztecs, were amazed at the speed of play. Judging by their description, the game was a combination of basketball, soccer, volleyball, and as thrilling as ice hockey or jai alai." (Cordes) Some versions of the game are for one-on-one play with only two people, but most versions of the game would have entire teams playing. There were two main versions of the ball game played by the Mayans: handball and bigball. Bigball had two major variations that were commonly played. One was played by royalty and dynastic rulers, while the other was played by nonroyalty, such as professional athletes or the general public. There were other variations on the game as well, depending on the culture of the city in specific. The sport is generally considered to have been both sacred as well as brutal and bloody, and many accounts report that it was played to the…

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