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The Mayans knew the ultimate agony of defeat

I dropped into the Mint Museum the previous Sunday, the day of the Latin American Festival. The place was packed. Inside, someone was everywhere, even the galleries with the boring stuff, the stuff that can make you feel

like you've dropped into a sensory deprivation chamber if you stare too long. The festival goers were looking, reading, commenting. No one was making them do it. They were quietly, carefully, electively studying cultural artifacts while others partied on the grassy museum grounds 100 yards away.

Most of the people in the museum were taking in the same show I came to see, The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. The hook

to the show is the death angle. In some of these contests, losers of the game suffered public execution. It's a game that makes rugby and football seem positively Pollyanna. But the hook is only the hook. There's more here than ritual death to the losers. The show only begins to roll with


The ballgame originated and was played in Mesoamerica ­ an area running from central Mexico east through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El

Salvador. The artifacts in this show are largely from this area, though the game, or variations on the game, were played as far north as Arizona, and as far east as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Artifacts in the show cover the 3,000 year period from about 1500 B.C. through 1500 A.D. Scholars have

cut the game time into three periods: the Formative (c. 1500 B.C. - A.D. 100), Classic (c. A.D. 250 - 900), and Postclassic (A.D. 1000 - 1519).

Two important phenomena were introduced from this region during this 3,000 year stretch ­ the rubber ball and the team. Both of these are fundamental to the games we play today, but I side with the bouncing ball as the greater single contribution to western civilization. Teamwork is

essential in most modern sports, but where would we be today without the bouncy ball?

Rubber was unknown to the western world before the Spanish conquest. New world explorers were mesmerized by the bouncing balls. Christopher Columbus witnessed a ball game on his second trip across the ocean blue and returned with a rubber ball to show off in Seville. Cortez took a whole team home with him for a live show at the court of Charles V. Their first away


The games are over, but the artifacts remain. The artifacts collected and borrowed by the Mint for this exhibition are numerous and fascinating, a testament to the skill of the artists and myth makers of Mesoamerica, and to a time and place where the reverence and importance of games may have eclipsed our own. Decorative and utilitarian pottery replicating rubber balls, ceramic and jade figurines of rulers dressed as ballplayers, gear worn by the player/combatants and ornate bowls etched with scenes of contests tell the story of the games and reflect the consuming interest the culture invested in the game.

For all the ornate and fascinating artifacts recovered and exhibited in this show, none reveal conclusively how the game was played, but a few telling facts are known. Hands were used only to introduce the ball into play. After that, upper arms, hips and thighs were used to ricochet the ball off the wall enclosing the field of play. The balls are estimated to be from baseball size up to 12 inches in diameter, were solid, and moved fast enough to break bones or damage internal organs. The ever inventive Mayans are credited with making the balls lighter and bouncier by wrapping the rubber around a hollow skull ­ an idea Spalding would greatly improve upon 2,000 years later. In another allusion to the future game of basketball, small rings were sometimes suspended 20 feet above the stone playing alley.

More theories are posited in essays on the games in the gorgeous 288 page catalog (produced by our own Mint Museum) which accompanies the show. Facts are scarce, no playbook was left behind, and the academic speculations diverge and sometimes contradict. So we're left to our own speculations on how to play the game. Deflected hip shots and ricocheted ring shots were the slam dunks or touchdowns of the day. Or so I like to imagine.

Though we don't know how one lost the game, we do know there was agony in defeat, though happily, the agony was short-lived. Losers died. At least sometimes. They most assuredly died in the Mayan culture throughout the first millennium A.D. They lost their heads or hearts after losing the game, a sacrifice to the Maize god, their lives given in hopes of a bountiful harvest. The position of sacrificial loser was an honored one, according to the text accompanying the show, a necessary bloodletting for the good of all who would benefit from the largesse of an approving god. I hear the

words, but it's still difficult to wrap my head around the idea of the loser feeling all that lucky.

"The Monument with Decapitated Ballplayer" is a stone panel showing a ballplayer who has lost his head. He is seated on a platform and wears a yoke around his waist, a heavily padded device worn to protect the players' hips and midsection from the heavy ball. He carries a manopla, or handstone, used to bat the ball in play. But this player won't need that anymore. From his severed neck sprout seven entwined snakes, symbolizing fertility and the regenerative power of human blood.

The gear the players wore was ornamental as well as protective. A palma, or palm branch in Spanish, was worn attached to the waist yoke and served as either hip protector or impenetrable jock strap. The knife-shaped "Palma Depicting Death as a Ballplayer" depicts a skeletal head and a body with a hole in the center where the heart has been removed. The figure holds a severed head and a knife. The catalog text informs us that "life was not cheap, but was regarded as a person's most valuable treasure and therefore worthy of offering to the gods." The carving is both beautiful and macabre, and is illustrative of the beauty and gore throughout this show. The palma represents the symbolic importance the Mayans, and other Mesoamerican players, invested in the game and the game's inextricable connection to their physical and spiritual sustenance.

The Mayans left the most intriguing artwork, the work which most emphatically brings the game alive. In "Cylinder Vessel with Ballplayers (A.D. 700-900)," two men lean toward a black rubber ball from opposing directions. Both are decked out in full body regalia. Both wear feathered headdresses, one with bird head and dagger beak. Both are game-faced; one is poised to receive his opponent's hip shot. Ornamental rim text runs across the top of the image; a ball court marker is stuck in the ground behind the bird head player. The pottery piece is made with cream and brown slip and is accented with black paint. It's intricate and delicate and about 1,200 years


With this show, the Mint Museum has taken a great stride forward for all of Charlotte. In our wannabe world class city, this exhibition is inarguably world class. Curator of Pre-Columbian and African Art, and curator of this show, Michael Whittington deserves recognition and thanks

for putting this together. He pulled this stuff from collectors and museums and institutions, all no doubt very protective of their treasures. Good for Mr. Whittington, and good for us.

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