Mesoamerican Ball Courts - Oldest Sports Arenas in the Americas

The Architecture of the Mesoamerican Ball Game Arenas

Ballcourt at Monte Alban
Ballcourt at Monte Alban. lorenzolambertino

A ballcourt is a type of prehistoric building that was specifically created for the practice of the Mesoamerican ball game, and it is one of the oldest forms of sports arenas in the Americas. Archaeologists have identified approximately 1,300 ballcourts to date, located in 1,000 different sites.

The oldest ballcourt discovered to date is at the site of Paso de la Amada, in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, built about 1400 BC.

One dated roughly between 1600-1200 BC is at the site of Pampa de las Llamas-Moxeke in the Casma Valley of Peru. The Spanish described the ball game in cities throughout Mesoamerica at the time of the Conquest; and forms of the ball game are still practiced today.

Many prehistoric communities held more than one ballcourt: some were attached at right angles near their endzones, or placed parallel to one another, so that audiences could watch two games at the same time. Communities with more than one ballcourt include Cantona (24 ballcourts), Chichén Itzá (13), Kaminaljuyu (12), El Tajín (11), Monte Alban (8), Los Horcones (5), Rana (5), and Tikál (5).

Ballgame Versions

Ethnographers report that there are numerous versions of the ballgames played today, and archaeologists have identified at least three different pre-Hispanic ballgames as well. The ulama, and its likely Aztec ancestor ullamaliztli, are associated with about 800 I-shaped structures dated to the Late and Post Classic (AD 600-1500); the Teotihuacan stick game is illustrated in the murals at the Teotihuacan suburb of Tepantitla, and the pelota mixteca, played today in many Zapotec and Mixtec communities, has been hypothesized by archaeologist Eric Taladoire to be associated with the palagana or washbasin style ballcourt.

Most of the 1,300 known ballcourts are located in Mesoamerica and central America, but examples are known from the southwestern United States to the Amazon basin of South America. Although there is a large variety in the shape and size of ballcourts, the basic form is a long alley defined by two parallel walls, often with a low lying, projecting bench.

At both ends beyond the walls were more open sections or endzones. Most ballcourts were located in the central part of the community, suggesting the games were open to everyone, although there are cases in which the games were most likely reserved for elites. Masonry courts often included stone rings or markers projecting from the side walls, and some times there were central alley marker stones at floor level. Markers came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes: rings, posts, discs, cylinders and domes. Some, like at Chichen Itza are elaborately carved: some appear to have been shaped to have been useful for the post-game sacrifice of the losers.

 

Ballcourt Forms

Ballcourts vary in overall dimensions between 250x135 meters (820x443 feet) at Pueblo Viejo in Cuba to the diminuitive one at the Maya site of Lamanai in Belize, measuring only 16x2 m (52x7 ft). Ballcourts in the Maya lowlands are fairly regular in size: they vary between 14-35 m (46-115 ft) long and 3-12 m (10-40 ft) wide; but the grandest of all is at Chichén Itzá, where a 168x70 m (551x230 ft) masonry ballcourt boasts of towering sidewalls, flanked by the Temple of the Jaguars and the Temple of the Bearded Man.

  • I-Shaped Ballcourt. The most distinctive and recognizable form of the ballcourt is a masonry structure built in the shape of a capital I. I-shaped ballcourts are primarily found between Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico and Copán in Honduras. These structures have a narrow alley and wider, well-defined end zones. Some I-shaped forms are open ended, particularly in northern Mexico to the Maya lowlands. The southern-most of these is at the Initial Period (~1600-1200 BC) site of Pampa de las Llamas-Moxeke in the Casma Valley in Peru. It has an overall length of 33.9 m (111.2 ft), with a central alley measuring 17x6 m (56x20 ft), and 1.5 m (5 ft) tall side walls.
  • Washbasin or Palagana Ballcourt. This type of ballcourt is a rectangular alley that is closed at both ends and lacking endzones, and they are found in the Soconoscu, the Guatemalan highlands and the Tehuacan Valley of Oaxaca and are most often associated with the Olmec culture or attributed to Olmec influences. There are approximately 100 examples of the palagana, and they generally feature an alley between 10-12 m (33-40 ft) long, and 5-18 m (16-60 ft) wide. The side walls of the palagana ballcourt are sometimes sloped or benched. Archaeologist Eric Taladoire believes they can be safely associated with the practice of a specific game, the pelota mixteca. Most of them were built between the Late Preclassic-Early Classic periods in Mesoamerica (~300 BC-600 AD).
  • Other Styles. Other rarer styles noted by archaeologists include a version with a sunken alleyway, found in Cerros and Monte Alban by the Late Formative period (300 BC-250 AD); Hohokam courts found in central Arizona, characterized by slightly concave playing fields; T-shaped courts with one wall; open fields marked by two parallel rows of stones; and in the Antilles, simple broad clay surfaces. Ethnographic studies show that people do not today need a building to play the ball game: and that was likely true in the past as well.

    Sources

    This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Mesoamerica, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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    Diehl RA. 2009. Death Gods, Smiling Faces and Colossal Heads: Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc: FAMSI. (accessed in May 2012)

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    Taladoire E. 1981. Les terrains de jeu de balle (Mésoamérique et Sud-Ouest des Etats-Unis). Etudes Mésoaméricaines/Estudios Mesoamericanos Série II Mexico(4).

    Taladoire E. 2003. Could we speak of the Super Bowl at Flushing Meadows?: La pelota mixteca, a third pre-Hispanic ballgame, and its possible architectural context. Ancient Mesoamerica 14(02):319-342.

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     American Antiquity 61(4):732-746.