Captains of the Team

Stephen Houston (Brown University) and David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin)


Sporting events are much in mind these days, as we watch the end of the Tokyo Olympics. There is exhaustive training that leads to heartbreak or a medal and coveted position on the podium. But it is the team events that crowd with social drama, including athletes who languish on the bench and others, the captains, who toss the coin, lead the charge, and argue with referees. Not surprisingly — there is much money and prestige involved — scholars of sports give occasional thought to who might be chosen captain. The tasks are heavy, and selection cannot be undertaken lightly (Cotterill and Cheetham 2016), yet bonds of affection and kinship, a mistaken evaluation of someone for leadership, tend to operate more often than not (Fransen et al. 2019). The wrong person is put in charge, bungles things, and is kept there only by social pressures. Yet prowess comes into play as well. Leadership might be bestowed, as in soccer, on stars who manage better than others to dribble around opponents and land a shot, or, in the sports that involve horses, bring a team of them past the finish mark. Many dead Romans are forgotten, but not so Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who, in the early 2nd century AD, raced his chariot to many victories and a fortune greater than that of many Roman senators (Bell 2014:498; Struck 2010). A cunning and aggressive competitor, Diocles might lead from the beginning of the race (occupavit et vicit), dart around in the final moments (eripuit et vicit) or accelerate from far behind to swift victory (successit et vicit; Devitt 2019:186 fn.488).

For Maya ballplay, there is growing awareness of how big rubber balls might be — very big, as pointed out by Michael Coe (2003) — and the various acts by which they were thrown, yahlaj or possibly tz’ohnaj(?) being two such motions (see Beliaev and Houston 2020:fn.1; Stuart 1997; for an alternative reading of the second as jatz’naj, see Taube and Zender 2009:202–203, fig. 7.24; Zender 2004). There may even be an expression for the kneeling that takes place when a player is about to strike a ball, as on the Colonia La Esperanza marker from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Kowalski 1989:22fn.1). The text reads u-BAAH ta-OCH-K’AHK’ ta-ke-hi-na?, u baah ta ochk’ahk’ ta kehiin?, “his image/body in [the act] of fire-entering, in [the act] of… That final element recalls colonial Tzoztil, kejan ba, “bow, kneel” and kejel, “to be kneeling,” along with kehi, “kneel,” kehleh, “kneeling,” and kehuh, “genuflect” in present-day Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:171; 1988, I:22); for its part, Tzetal has kejaj, “kneel,” and kejel, “kneeling” (Berlin and Kaufman 1997:35). The ballplayer is both dedicating the marker (or its court[?]) through the ritual of och-k’ahk’, “fire-entering” (Stuart 1998:387–389), and referring to the kneeling shown on the stone.

Figure 1 Colonia La Esperanza Ballcourt Marker (right, cropped photograph by Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons; close-up, lower center, photograph by Stephen Houston).

An important essay by Karl Taube and Marc Zender (2009) details the many acts of violence that took place in Maya ballcourts. An equally useful essay by Christophe Helmke and colleagues (2018) studies the equipment for the game. As scholars have long noted, a divide appears to exist in such gear. To one side are perishable originals, including the apparent “yoke” (yugo) or hip-protector found by chance as a cavity left by decay in the fine matrix of Burial 195 — this was the probable tomb of “Animal Skull” (K’inich Wawa’n[?] Ahk Bahlam) at Tikal, Guatemala (Guillemin 1968; Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:66, fig. 231b, #12U-106/27; its plaster and gesso would lighten weight but presumably also flake and crack under vigorous use). Then there are the skeuomorphs, the imperishable versions in stone of which several have been found at Maya sites (Cruz Romero 2012; Shook and Marquis 1996:27–59). The “yuguitos” or “small yugos,” for example, appear to reproduce the knee pads worn by players while kneeling. If used, however, they would quite smash, in patellar agony, the body part they were supposed to protect (Helmke et al. 2018:12–13, fig. 6). There is a proposal that stones were worn but in slower ritual movement, in evocations of actual ballplay but without its actual, herky-jerky violence (for debates on wearability, see Alegría 1951:349; Clune 1963; Ekholm 1946, 1961). Gordon Ekholm notes that, despite their 18 to 27 kilo weight, many yokes might be worn around the hips provided the user were “not an exceptionally large person and still retains a certain athletic slimness… [of] non-civilized peoples” (Ekholm 1946:596). The most fetching illustration of this comes from an article by Stephan De Borhegyi, which shows a suitably slim man and woman — the author and his wife, Suzanne? — decked out in such gear (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Stone yokes and manopolas (saps) in use, in photographs from 1948 (a) and 1959 (b); equipment from El Baúl, Guatemala (De Borhegyi 1964:fig. 1).

Looking at all ballgear is beyond the reach of a blog. But a glyphically embellished find from the site of Bolonk’in, not far from Chilón, Chiapas, raises the question of what to call the yoke (Figure 3, Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004; the image, although missing a few glyphs, such as a 7 Imix day sign, is beautifully redrawn in Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5). The shell glyphs on the yoke were inlaid (Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004:fig. 1) and leave little doubt, as others have explained, that this is a name-tagged object belonging to the subordinate of a ruler of Tonina, Mexico (Helmke et al. 2018:11–12). The key element is the first glyph block in the text below. On the basis of a recent decipherment, it must read u-ya’-tuun, not u-tun-‘a or some other possibility (see Grube 2020:fig. 7). A proposal by Stuart, YA’ or ya’, is securely tied to concepts of “pain” in some readings, and this meaning seems valid in many contexts (Beliaev and Houston 2020; see also Grube 2020). But Maya glyphs also employ homophones. That principle of substitution may operate here.

Figure 3. Text of shells on a yugo reputed to be from Bolonk’in, Chiapas, Mexico; u-[YA’]- ‘a-TUUN-ni ya-ja-K’UH-na ya-AJAW-TE’ pi-tzi-la K’INICH-CHAPAAT-BAAKNAL-CHAHK (drawing by Christopher Helmke [Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5).

A perusal of Mayan dictionaries reveals an entry of *jol ya’ for “cadera” or hip in Ch’ol (Aulie and Aulie 1998:121; see also b’äkel ya’ “cadera” in Hopkins et al. 2010:15). The use of “head” (jol) to preface body parts, or rather, parts of body parts, occurs in Ch’orti’ as well: jor-b’aker, “hip,” and jor-pik, “waistband area of a skirt” (Hull 2016:178). The term ya’ for “hip” is probably also documented as ‘o’il, “hip” in Tzotzil, a language with well-attested variance between /a/ and /o/ phonemes (Laughlin 1975:452), and in Ch’ol terms for “thigh,” i ya’ (Warkentin and Scott 1980:116), and a,”muscle/thigh” in Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:331). Thus, the term on the yoke is not “pain” but “hip”—indeed, a “hip-stone,” as shown in De Borhegyi’s playful image.

The reading opens many possibilities. An issue with reading ya’ as “pain” is that objects were clearly involved in a number of texts. There were things taken or received, ch’am, or, in one instance, name-tagged to a long-decayed backing (Beliaev and Houston 2020:figs. 4c, d). The exquisite shells from Piedras Negras offer a test-case of this. Found by Héctor Escobedo in the first days of a multi-year project with Houston, these proved eventually to come from the tomb of a ruler at the city, Itzam K’an Ahk, a.k.a. “Ruler 4” in the ordering of Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Figure 4, Escobedo 2004:279). Further study of these shells led to the realization that they mentioned Yopaat Bahlam, the “missing” king of Yaxchilan who was recorded on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras (Martin and Grube 2008:149; Martin 2020:134). The date in the first glyph is likely, Jan. 3, AD 747, one of the few calendrical records for a lord otherwise erased from Yaxchilan’s official history. But it is the name tag that is relevant here, for it displays ya’ with its prefixed (and purely iconic) obsidian blade, along with a subfixed ‘a to reinforce the reading.

Figure 4. Shells from Burial 13, Structure O-13, Piedras Negras; glyph to lower right from Panel 3:J2 (drawings by Stephen Houston, photograph from the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archive, use courtesy of Jeremy Sabloff).

In the same tomb is the mosaic, also in Spondylus shell, of a ballplayer pieced together by Zac Hruby, the lithicist for the Piedras Negras Project (Figure 5). It seems plausible that the glyphs pertain to this image, and that the shells once fitted either into a perished tableau of ballplaying or, as seen enduringly in the Bolonk’in piece, a long-disappeared yoke. The ya’ simply referred to “hip” but also to the “yoke” that simulated and protected this body part. (In English, by a similar convention,”girdle” refers to the pelvis but also to an item of clothing encircling the waist.) Yopaat Bahlam came to visit Piedras Negras — did he also play there or provide a piece of ballgame gear to the local king? Or was it won as a trophy in play? It was certainly valued enough to be included in his host’s tomb.

Figure 5. Mosaic ballplayer in Spondylus shell, Burial 13, Piedras Negras, along with relevant glyphs, T’AB[yi]-YA’-‘a (photograph to left, Jorge Pérez de Lara, to right, Kenneth Garrett).

Dos Pilas, Guatemala, also has ya’ spellings that cue a concrete, portable object and affirm a link to ballplay (Figure 6). The earliest known monumental inscription at the city, Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Center, refers to a ch’am “take, receive” event with a probable yoke at 4 Muluk 2 Mak, Oct. 29, AD 643. At this juncture, the local Lord, Balaj Chan K’awiil, was 18 years old and, a few years before, at, had been involved in some bloody event, perhaps ‘i-LOK'[yi] ti-ta-ji, taaj being a well-known term for “obsidian.” That is, he was surely mature enough for rough activity. The text referring to the yoke is partly eroded, but the reference is followed by a title string associated with “ballplay,” ba-TE’ pi-tzi (cf. Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step IV:K1–L1). This is unlikely to be a coincidence. The other allusion to “receiving/taking a yoke” appears on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. Although an unfinished text, especially its upper riser (which may date later), the stairway adjoins this reference to a scene of ballplayers in full gear. They are evidently in some ritual in which gear is being broken out or balls unwrapped.[1] As at Piedras Negras, the juxtaposition of text and image is unlikely to have arisen by chance.

Figure 6 . Ya’ as “yoke” on two texts from Dos Pilas, one with ballplayer title (bate’ pitz), the other with ballplayer scene (top image, PARI; bottom, drawing by Stephen Houston, image from PARI).

In sum, there is evidence that YA’ functioned as a homophonic sign. In a few examples it also occurs as a title, usually of subordinate lords, even princes at court. YA’ is prefixed by BAAH or ba, doubtless for baah, “head, first.” Similar constructions occur in Maya texts, where that prefix creates a title by attaching itself to the name of an object, a flint (took’), shield (pakal), staff (te’) or throne (tz’am, Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17). The title implies habitual service; the adjective “head” or “first” denotes salience in those duties. They apply to people in principal charge of — or most skilled at — the care or use of an object at dynastic courts. Examples in Figure 7 attest to a similar pattern with yokes. Young princes of royal houses appear to be the “Head Yoke” or “Head [Person of the] Yoke.”[2] The ballcourt ring from Oxkintok refers to the local ruler in the company of “youths” (ch’oktaak) and may then give two names in succession, concluding with baah (or ba) ya’, the “head yoke” or “head person of the yoke. The very setting points to an overt association with ballplay. The other examples hint that they too were given distinction in this sport. Perhaps the Baah Ya’ were victorious athletes or, as leaders, “captains of the team.”


Figure 7. “Head Yoke” as a title of princes and subordinates: Oxkintok Ballcourt Ring (left, position pZ1, García-Gallo 1992:fig. 2); Yaxchilan-area panel (upper right, photograph by Stephen Houston); and carver or owner’s tag on stone mace (photography courtesy of Justin Kerr [for shape of artifact, see Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 38).

[1] Dressing scenes in Maya imagery tend to be anticipatory, not about packing up afterwards; see Bonampak Room 1 and K2695, in which royalty is being prepared for dance.

[2] Marc Zender (personal communication from 2018) wonders whether there might be an implicit agentive ‘a or aj in such spellings. That is a real possibility, as hinted at in Figure 7, BAAH-‘a~AJ[YA’] by one reading. But it would not shift the general meaning here.



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A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan

by Jorge L. Orejel (Infosys Limited)

Editor’s Note:

In 1990 Jorge Orejel, then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, made an important contribution to Maya epigraphy with his decipherment of the “axe/comb” hieroglyph as ch’ak, “to chop” (Orejel 1990). This glyph appears in the Dresden Codex as well as in historical inscriptions where it represents a term for conquest and military defeat, as we have explored recently in the complex chronicles of warfare on Naranjo’s Stela 12. Jorge wrote his decipherment in the series Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, published by The Center for Maya Research and its later iteration, the Boundary End Archaeological Research Center. Several years ago he submitted another study on the fascinating text on Step VII of Yaxchilan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, where the same ch’ak verb occurs three times in a mythological context. My father George Stuart, the editor of the RRAMW since it inception, was ill around the time Jorge submitted his second contribution, and with my dad’s passing in 2014 the paper failed to appear as part of that long-lasting series. The Research Reports may yet be re-conceived as an ongoing publication, but in many ways its function has been supplanted by other outlets, including this Maya Decipherment blog. In that spirit we here present Jorge’s paper at long last in on-line form, without further delay, appearing many years after it was first written.

I would like to thank Jorge for his infinite patience, and to Jeff Splitstoser for his hard work in getting the article formatted.

– David Stuart


Orejel, Jorge L. 1990. The “Axe/Comb” Glyph as ch’ak. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, number 31. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

Click here for A Parallel Long-Reckoning between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilan, by Jorge L. Orejel.

Step VII of Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 (Drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program, Peabody Museum, Harvard University)


Deathly Sport

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).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).
Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

(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.

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).
Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

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).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).
Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).


(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 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).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).
Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

(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).

Figure 5.  Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).
Figure 5. Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

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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