by Stephen Houston, Brown University
On a scorching day in July 2006, my wife and I happened to visit a Roman necropolis at Carmona, just east of Sevilla, Spain – not for nothing is this called the sartén de Europa, with temperatures in excess of 46° celsius! But there, at Roman “Carmo,” the tombs were cool, richly painted in parts. Some dozens of meters away, we saw a triclinium (formal dining room) for funerary banquets and an amphitheater to house games in honor of the dead.
The ancient Mediterranean has a long tradition of such games. Homer, in the Iliad, speaks with appreciative bloodlust of the sporting events for Patroclus, the late, beloved companion of Achilles: “Raising their arms, their powerful fists, they [the participants] went at one another. Their hands exchanged some heavy punches, landing with painful crunches on their jaws. From their limbs sweat ran down everywhere” (Bk 23, lines 847-851, trans. Ian Johnston). Ultimately, the tradition passed to the Lucanians at Paestum, south of Naples —where the scene of a gladiatorial fray embellishes the walls of a tomb—to what may be the first gladiatorial contests, also funerary, held at Rome in 264 BC (Potter 2012:187-190). In all such cases, the games pulsed with recollection of once-vibrant dead. As John Bodel, a friend and Latin epigraphist reminds me, the nuances were further layered to include the most basic struggle of all, between life and death (see Ville 1981).
Was some Maya ballplay of a mortuary nature too? Did the hurly-burly of sacred sport—a celebration of chance but also of preparation and athletic skill—link to royal tombs?
The grimmer features of the Post-Classic (to early Colonial) ballgame bear repeating. The Xibalba of the Popol Vuh, an abode of gods with names like mortal diseases, thudded with ballplay. It was in a ballcourt that the lords of Xibalba buried the defeated brothers One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu (Christenson 2007:125). Hunahpuh and Xbalanque, miraculous sons of One Hunahpu, later played in the “ballcourt of their father,” “sweeping [it] clear” (ibid.:125). When they bested the lords of Xibalba, the twins “left behind” the “heart of their father [One Hunahpu]…at Crushing Ballcourt” (ibid.:191). “Here you will called upon’…‘They shall worship you first. Your name shall not be forgotten’” (ibid.:191).
The Popol Vuh, a much later source, does not always resonate with practices and beliefs of the Classic period. Yet here it might, in what appear to be precise or notional alignments between the central axis of a ballcourt and a known royal tomb.
The more precise examples:
(1) At Dos Pilas, Guatemala, the ballcourt composed of Structures L4-17 and L4-16 (Houston 1993:Site Map 1) defines an axis that passes directly south to a pyramid, Structure L5-1. Excavations in 1991 showed that the pyramid contained the tomb of Dos Pilas’ Ruler 2, in a crypt almost precisely aligned with the axis of the ballcourt (Figure 1; Demarest et al. 1991). The sculptures on the ballcourt, Panels 11 and 12, deploy a version of the Dos Pilas Emblem that dates a generation or so later than the pyramid (Houston 1993:Figures 3-17, 3-18).
(2) The small ballcourt near Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala (Structure 5D-74-1st), has a central axis aligning with Burial 116, tomb of Jasaw Kaan K’awiil, ruler of Tikal (Figure 2; Coe 1990:Figures 257b, 284-86). There is an earlier ballcourt—said vaguely to be “within a regional ‘Early Classic’ era (whatever this attribution may communicate to reader)” (Coe 1990:650). It aligns almost exactly with Burial 116. Conceivably, the earlier ballcourt dictated the placement of Burial 116, which is off-center in the pyramid, below ground level and towards the front. Again, the crypt lines up with the axis of Structure 5D-74-1st and 2nd.
Then the ballcourts with rougher alignments:
(3) The first ballcourt at Copan, Honduras, dating to ca. AD 470, has a central axis that points to the front stairway of the Margarita tomb, and to the vicinity of Hunal, the probable tomb of the founder (Figure 3; Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5.2). The axes of the crypts have the same orientation as the ballcourt (Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5-7).
(4) A suggestive example comes from Ceibal, Guatemala (Figure 4). Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, in Structure A-14, refers to the “fire-entering” of a tomb on 220.127.116.11.17 Nov. 4, AD 747 (Graham 1996:59, Tablet 5:DD1). Presumably, the tomb lay nearby, perhaps behind the stairway, which seems to have been re-set in Classic times. Across from the stairway, but not precisely aligned with its axis, is the Structure A-19 ballcourt; its orientation leads to the join between Structures A-12 and A-14. Takeshi Inomata, who has been digging at Ceibal over the last years, kindly reports on what his project found. Digging in the southern end of Structure A-12, they discovered that the “construction mass dates to the Late Preclassic. Thin Late and Terminal Classic layers were sitting on the Preclassic building”; Takeshi also noted some evidence of an earlier Late Classic building beneath Structure A-14 (personal communication, July 2014). The question remains whether there is still a tomb to be found. The hieroglyphic text would indicate so (Stuart 1998:398, fn. 13).
(Incidentally, we have long assumed that the tomb mentioned on the Hieroglyphic Stairway belonged to a figure from the Early Classic period—someone named K’an Mo’ Bahlam. But I see no compelling reason to believe this, as the only date here is firmly Late Classic. To be sure, there is an Early Classic lord of Ceibal mentioned on Tablet 7, position MM1, of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, but with a different name. Notably, he is said to have played ball, pi-tzi!)
(5) A final example appears at the more distant location of Chichen Itza, Mexico, with a date some centuries later than #1-4. There, the Great Ballcourt lines up, at least approximately, with the enigmatic but suitably named Osario or “High Priest’s Grave,” the sole locus of attested royal burials at Chichen (Figure 5; Ruppert 1935; also Thompson 1938). The Great Ballcourt and the Osario date to about the same time, c. AD 1000-1100 AD (Braswell and Peniche May 2012:238).
An empirical pattern doth not a theory make. Yet, at some sites, the Maya may have configured two buildings in unison. One contained a known or likely tomb or tombs, as at Chichen. (There must have been sustained knowledge of sub-surface remains.) The other was a ballcourt, its corridor pointing to a tomb, often at the same orientation. Several alignments seem more notional than precise, uncertain to satisfy a skeptic. And a few, as in my excavations with Héctor Escobedo at Structure K-5, Piedras Negras, could even be cenotaphic (Houston et al. 2008). A ballcourt, Structure K-6, lines up with a pyramid to a deceased queen but not, alas, to her tomb…or at least not one that we could find! (It could still lie off-axis, as we were only able to dig by means of a 2x2m shaft.) We do know the pyramid came first, and that the ballcourt, with its famous image of boxers, was a slightly later construction. In a personal communication, David Stuart also wonders whether Monument 171 at Tonina might be relevant (Stuart 2013): it shows a deceased lord playing with one still living.
Wendy Ashmore has written about ballcourt locations, emphasizing their southern position as “underworld” places of “transition” (Ashmore 1992:178, 179). I would mute her emphasis on “south” and suggest instead the dead could be to the north, south, and east too. Direction did not matter in these examples. Far more important was a specific mortuary intent and not, in Wendy’s words, a “cosmic template.” The fact that the glyph for tombs so often resembles half of the sign for a ballcourt—distinguished solely by the skull inside, nestled within a dark space (Stuart 1998:Figure 13)—raises the specter of a proposal. As in the Popol Vuh, some ballcourts bustled with the living but directed that activity towards the dead.
Acknowledgements: Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona generously responded to my questions about his excavations at Ceibal; Dave Stuart, too, helped with comments, as did John Bodel. I prepared some of these remarks for a workshop on Piedras Negras at Dumbarton Oaks, as facilitated by Dr. Colin McEwan, Joanne Pillsbury, and Mary Pye.
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