Commemorative Disc from 894 AD Maya Ball Game Found at Chichén Itzá
A commemorative disc carved in stone and featuring images of contestants in a Maya sporting event was recently unearthed at the Chichén Itzá archaeological site in southern Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. Two individuals are portrayed, and each is wearing a traditional outfit associated with an ancient Maya ball game known as pelota, the Spanish word for “ball”.
There is a fairly detailed inscription on the disc, which has yet to be completely deciphered. However, the archaeologists who found it did decode a notation in the inscription that claims the players depicted were participants in a ball game that occurred in the year 894.
They are hopeful that further translation of the inscription will reveal more details about this ninth-century sporting event, including the names of the participating teams or even the score of the game if that was recorded on the disc for posterity.
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“It’s rare to find hieroglyphic writing at this site, and even rarer to find a complete text,” said archaeologist and dig coordinator Francisco Pérez Ruiz in a press release issued by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the organization that is sponsoring the current excavations at Chichén Itzá . “It’s been 11 years since that happened.”
The commemorative disc when it was first excavated at Chichén Itzá. ( INAH)
Commemorative Disc of the Pelota Players – A Celebration of Maya Sport
The commemorative stone disc, which has been labeled the “Disc of the Pelota Players,” is a heavy, rounded slab that is 12.7 inches (32.5 cm) wide and 3.7 inches (9.5 cm) thick. Discovered at Mexico’s Chichén Itzá , it weighs a hefty 88 pounds (40 kg), suggesting that it was meant to be displayed somewhere in public rather than being carried around.
The INAH archaeologists discovered the unusual artifact inside a Maya structure known as Casa Colorada , meaning “the Colorful House.” Given this name because of the red-painted walls of its interior, this complex had its own pelota ball court, which explains why the commemorative disc or plaque was found in this location. It is reasonable to assume the disc was commissioned for a contest that was considered especially important, suggesting that it might have been some type of championship match.
As would be expected, the two players in the image on the disc were dressed somewhat differently, signifying the fact that they would have been playing for opposing teams. “The character on the left is wearing a feathered headdress and a sash that features a flower-shaped element, probably a water lily.”
“In line with the face is a scroll, which may be interpreted as breath or voice,” explained INAH archaeologist Santiago Alberto Sobrino Fernández. “The opposing player wears a headdress known as a ‘snake turban’, which has been seen represented numerous times at Chichén Itzá.”
Students of Maya society and history have a general idea of how pelota was played. However, they don’t know how teams were formed and who or what the players represented. What they have discovered is that one of the individuals on the disc was wearing protective clothing.
The Chichén Itzá Maya commemorative disc after restoration work. ( INAH)
Pelota as Cultural Unifier and Religious Ritual
Pelota undoubtedly had great cultural significance in the Maya civilization. Having first been played nearly 3,000 years ago, it would have been the Maya Empire’s national sport, performing an integrative function among the Maya people just as sports like soccer, basketball or American football do today.
The existence of a carefully engraved and inscribed stone disc commemorating what must have been considered an important match testifies to the ancient sport’s unifying role in Maya society, which had developed a great level of sophistication and complexity by the end of its Classical Period (250 to 900 AD).
Chichén Itzá features a large central pelota ball court that is much bigger than the one at Casa Colorada. It’s possible that the latter court may have hosted youth or amateur contests or could have possibly been used strictly as a practice site. The newly discovered stone plaque may or may not have recorded the results of a match that was actually played at Casa Colorada and, if the game was played elsewhere (like at the central court), the disc may have been made to be displayed at the practice facility of the triumphant team.
Notably, the stone disc was found in a part of the Casa Colorada complex that would have included an access arch. This is just the sort of location where a commemorative disc would presumably have been displayed, where people entering the facility could see it. The archaeologist who actually unearthed the commemorative disc, Lizbeth Beatriz Mendicuti Pérez, said that it was found in an inverted position buried 22 inches (58 cm) beneath the ground. This suggests that it was hung from the east wall of the arch before falling face down when that arch collapsed.
Illustration of the commemorative disc depicting an ancient Maya ball game. ( INAH)
Exploring Pelota: The Mysterious Ball Game of the Ancient Maya
Based on a study of pelota courts and other engravings that portray various aspects of the ball game , archaeologists and historians do have some understanding of how the game was played. Points were scored when a ball was thrown through a round hole, indicating some similarities with basketball. However, it seems players were only allowed to move the ball with their hips, elbows or knees, adding a higher degree of difficulty than found in games where participants are allowed to use their hands.
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Pelota games were held in all Maya cities , each of which had a central court where spectators could gather in large numbers to watch the action. Scholars who’ve studied Maya texts and engravings have concluded that human sacrifices were offered in association with these contests, although it isn’t clear how victims were selected.
Pelota balls were sometimes filled with the ashes of dead Maya rulers or elites, which along with the sacrifices highlights how the Maya integrated their religious beliefs with their cultural practices, including those involving athletic or sporting competitions.
It's possible that a more exhaustive study of the newly recovered stone disc will reveal interesting details about the ancient contest that motivated its creation. As of now the commemorative plaque is being studied onsite at the place it was discovered, and conservation processes are being applied to ensure its long-term preservation.
High-resolution images of the commemorative disc found at Chichén Itzá have now been taken. By studying these detailed pictures, the archaeologists should be able to fully translate the inscription on the disc’s engraved face.
Top image: Archaeologists unearthed a stone commemorative disc featuring images of contestants in a Maya ball game at Chichén Itzá in Mexico. Source: INAH
By Nathan Falde