Ancient Mayan ballgame marker unearthed at Chichén Itzá


It may have been used in a professional final in front of hundreds of fans. Or perhaps a regular season recreation league tip-off with Mom and Dad.

An ancient stone marker used in a soccer-like ballgame was unearthed this week at the Chichén Itzá archaeological site in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The intricately carved circular piece, measuring just over 12 inches in diameter and weighing nearly 90 pounds, displays hieroglyphic writings around two players at its center standing next to a ball.

It’s not a scoreboard, according to Simon Martin, a curator at the Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s more similar to the markings on a field and would have been used in some fashion to score points. Three markers typically lined the game’s narrow center valley between two large end zones. (The shape of a capital I.)

The stone is believed to date back to the 11th century.

This is the first discovery in over 11 years of an object with hieroglyphic writing at Chichén Itzá, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

“In this Mayan site, it is rare to find hieroglyphic writing, let alone a complete text,” said Pérez Ruiz, one of the archaeologists coordinating research at the site.

But the hieroglyphs around the center of the stone, including the date it would have been used, are difficult to decipher.

“There’s some kind of debate amongst [researchers] as to whether they’re just very crude and that’s why we can’t read them, or whether they’re actually what we call pseudo-glyphs, a point that is past literacy when people imitate text or they can’t actually write them anymore,” Martin said.

Researchers will now take high-resolution images of the carvings to study them in detail.

The Mayan ballgame dates back over 3,000 years and is considered one of the first organized sporting games.

Many details of the game, including how points were scored, remain a mystery. In one common theory, players attempted to bounce a rubber ball, ranging in size from a softball to a soccer ball, off two sloping sides into stone hoops without using their hands or feet.

Players armored themselves with heavy belts and knee and arm pads to bounce off the ball. There was no set number of players. Some depictions show as few as two to each side while others display much larger teams.

Arenas would have housed a few hundred spectators.

The game was woven into the political, religious and social lives of Mesoamerican peoples. It was sometimes played as a regular game and other times as a performance, woven into Mayan mythology and depicting heroes that descend to the underworld to play against the gods of death.

Chichén Itzá is one of the main archaeological centers of the Mayan civilization in the Yucatán Peninsula. It attracts about 2 million visitors every day.

The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2007 was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Chichén Itzá is one of the main archaeological centers of the Mayan civilization in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and attracts about 2 million visitors every day. (Video: Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History)


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