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Mesoamerican ballgame latterly known as ‘Ulama’, using ‘Hipball’ rules

Playing Ball in Ancient Belize: 1,300-year-old Stone Panels Depicting Mayan Ballplayers Revealed


Archaeologists have deciphered two 1,300-year-old stone panels that depict ancient Mayans playing with large balls while carrying impressive fans. The panels were found at the archaeological site of Tipan Chen Uitz in Belize and, according to the experts, date back to 700 AD.

First Panels Depicting Ballplayers in Belize’s History

IBT reports that these are the first panels ever found in Belize’s history depicting Mayans playing ball. The first panel portrays a ballplayer that can be recognized from his pose and protective belt. He plays with a large, round ball, while in his left hand he holds a complex fan. Experts assume that it was around one and a half meters (5 ft) wide and about seventy centimeters high in its initial form, but almost ten percent of the image has been lost throughout the centuries. Furthermore, archaeologists suggest that the panel was intentionally vandalized at some point, with one figure especially being extremely scratched.

The right of the panel shows a ballplayer holding his fan.

The right of the panel shows a ballplayer holding his fan. (Christophe Helmke / Antiquity 2017)

The panel bears an engraving reading "nine hand-span ball,” which indicates a measurement of the circumference of the ball. In other parts of the panel one can read the player’s odd nickname "Waterscroll Ocelot.” The second panel, as IBT reports, is somewhat smaller but it also portrays a human figure participating in a ballgame. Unfortunately, this figure's face has been scratched as well.

Smaller panel shows human figure playing ball game

Smaller panel shows human figure playing ball game (Christophe Helmke / Antiquity 2017)

The Immense Significance of Ballgames in Ancient Mesoamerican Cultures

Ballgames were very important from a social and political point of view for the Mayans, as the authors of a new study published in the journal Antiquity mention, "Iconographic and glyphic analysis of these panels within a regional context provides new insights into large-scale socio-political relationships, demonstrating that the ballgame was an important means and mechanism for macropolitical affiliation in the Maya Lowlands," the authors, led by Christopher Andres of Michigan State University, write as IBT reports.

Ulama, undoubtedly the most famous ballgame in Mesoamerican history, was not just a game for the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations, but much more than that. As previously reported in another Ancient Origins article, Ulama was viewed as a battle between the sun against the moon and stars representing the principle of lightness and darkness (and possibly the battle between good and evil). Additionally, the motion of the ball symbolized the rotation of the sun for the Aztec, Olmeca and Mayan people. To the Mayans, the game was known as Pok a Tok, to the Aztec it was Tlachtli, while nowadays most people refer to it as Ulama.  Believed to have extended as far south as Paraguay and north into present day Arizona, the earliest known Mesoamerican ball court is Paso de la Amada in Mexico, which has been radiocarbon dated to around 3600 years old.

Mesoamerican ball game court in Monte Alban

Mesoamerican ball game court in Monte Alban (CC BY 2.0)

Nearly 1,300 Mesoamerican ball courts have been found to this day and it is estimated that every Mesoamerican city of antiquity had at least one.  The Olmec courts were the size of a modern day football field and when seen from an aerial view, looked like a capital “I” with two perpendicular end zones at the top and bottom.  They were lined with stone blocks and played on a rectangular court with slanted walls.  These walls were often plastered and brightly painted.  Serpents, jaguars, raptors were depicted alongside images of human sacrifice suggesting a connection to the divinity.

Olmec courts were the shape of a capital ‘I’

Olmec courts were the shape of a capital ‘I’ (Source: mexicolore)

Everybody Played the Game Regardless Social Status

The new study focuses on the fact that these ballgames weren’t played only by commoners, but from people of all kinds of socio-economic background. Nobles and local rulers have been portrayed playing on several occasions, while foreign VIPs were also often featured in images and artwork from that era.

Sak Ch’een, lord of Motul de San José c.8th century, dressed as a ball player with a large yoke

Sak Ch’een, lord of Motul de San José c.8th century, dressed as a ball player with a large yoke (CC BY-SA 3.0)

"These ballplayer panels may reflect a greater system of allegiances cemented in part by public performances involving [land owners] and overlords participating in the ballgame," the authors write as IBT reports, while they are being optimistic that further examination of these panels could reveal more information about the socio-political landscape of the ancient Mayan history.

Top image: Mesoamerican ballgame latterly known as ‘Ulama’, using ‘Hipball’ rules (Source: jdellaer)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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