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Front covers of a dozen monographs on rubber ballgames of Mesoamerica

My learning about Mesoamerican art, iconography, hieroglyphic inscriptions and monumental architecture started when I was at Palenque, at age 16, in 1961, while a junior at high school. I arrived, by myself, as a backpacker.

I then spent decades visiting Mayan ballcourts, but also courts at sites around Oaxaca, El Tajin (Veracruz) and of course the murals of Teotihuacan. But my heart and soul have always been attracted by the Maya, though I am well aware of the Olmec (visited Olmec museum exhibits when still a backpacker in the 1960’s; that is half a century ago). But most of my writing is on the Classic Maya ballgame iconography.

 

Iconography Maya Sculpture Mexico-web

Iconography Seven Maya Ballplayers Rio Usumacinta or Calakmul-web

Ballgame Maya sculpture Guatemala-web

 

Ballgame outfits and religious symbolism of Bilbao, Cotzumalhuapa

The sculpture of Bilboa and nearby archaeological sites of Cotzumalhuapa attracted my interest already in the 1970’s. The Bilbao, Cotzumalhuapa sculpture is a cultural mixture of concepts from the Teotihuacans, El Tajin, and many other cultures. Yet the sites are all in Guatemala: but along the trans-Guatemala long distance trade routes. It is probably the centuries of contact with Mexican cultures to the north and Central American cultures to the south that led to the cosmopolitan Bilbao style.

 

If I remember correctly, I actually made two trips to the nice museum in West Berlin where eight ballplayer stelae of Bilbao, Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala are exhibited.

I brought an entire studio: tripods, lighting, Hasselblad, Leica, and Nikon cameras.

These were the days of film! But with literally the best scanning technology (CREO Scitex) Cami has done an impressive job of putting these images into digital format.

Eight Ballgame Stelae Bilbao Cotumalhuapa Complete Iconography-web

 

We continue working to scan the dozen monographs by Dr Nicholas Hellmuth on ballgame iconography of the Maya and also Cotzumalhuapa. As soon as funding is available we will dedicate these informative reports to the benefactor and make the documentation available to the world.

These reports represent two decades of photography around the world plus lots of research on the ballgames of Teotihuacan, Mixtec, Zapotec, Classic Veracruz (El Tajin), Xochicalco, Aztec, and the Maya of Tabasco, Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Nicholas himself has even played the game, twice: once in the ballcourt of Copan (for a TV documentary of Brevard Community College) and once in a ballcourt in western Mexico (for an international TV documentary).

 

Deer Hunting was one of many Focuses of Mayan Rubber Ballgames

The primary worldwide focus on the Mayan ballgames is on the human sacrifice. Yes, many game balls feature severed heads. Yes, it would not surprise me if severed heads were used as game balls (wrapped in rubber): notice this is not a statement of fact, it is an observation of potential discovery, or not, in the future).

Yes, many ballgames were potentially to parade a political opponent, play a game with him; have him conveniently lose (probably because he was handicapped physically or with drugs). But there were many other regional varieties of ballgames. It is especially noticeable that some ballplayers wear outfits similar to those worn by deer hunters.

 

Headdresse Skirt Deer Hunting and Ballplayer-web

Hunting Pictured Early Classic Maya Potery Cylindrical Tripods Basal Flange Bowls-web

The Old Deer Hunter Woman Riding Mythical Deer-web

 

These are only a sample of hunting scenes in Classic Mayan art on polychrome, vases, bowls, and plates. There are many other scenes, incised, and mold-impressed on vases and bowls. But the above four introductions to the iconography of Lowland Maya deer hunting scenes are a start.

Of course there are also bird hunting scenes, since it was bird hunting, with blow guns, which is most often described in the Popol Vuh.

 

Ballplayer Scenes on Maya Pottery are very common

 

There are many more ballplayer scenes on Maya vases, bowls, and occasionally plates than on carved stone monuments.

Ballplayer Scenes-web

 

There are dozens of ballplayers as figurines, both of Jaina and other styles. Lots of these are modern forgeries, but many are authentic.

 

Ballgame paraphernalia: yokes, hachas, palmas, handstones, etc.

Most mistakes in museum catalogs, in coffee table book catalogs of traveling exhibits, in lectures, and in public presentations of the ballgame are calling anything around the waist a “yoke.”

So I have spent a lot of time documenting that although yokes are common, that the Maya (and players in other cultural areas) also had lots of outfits that did not utilize yokes.

Once you realize that most Classic Lowland Maya ballplayers used wood, cloth, and other materials, it is equally important to not abandon the yokes: even on the Copan Maya ballcourt scenes, about half the players do wear yokes.

So let’s take a good look at the yokes themselves.

 

Ballgame Sculptures of Veracruz ruins other than just El Tajin

We had permissions from INAH and the museum directors of the impressive museums in Mexico City and Veracruz. So, with all the camera equipment, we did lots of high-resolution photography of ballgame sculptures in addition to those from just El Tajin.

This publication features ballplayer decapitation stelae of Aparicio, Vega de Alatorre, Veracruz, Mexico.

ballplayer-decapitation-stone-stelae-Aparicio-Vega-de-Alatorre-Veracruz-Mexico-web

 

It helps attract people to visit museums if the material is nicely presented on the Internet. Visitors help local people with jobs as guides, guards, etc. Thus, as soon as a donation comes our way to cover the cost of scanning the text and finding the photos from three decades ago to also scan, we will be making all these ballgame publications free to students, professors, and the interested lay public to assist all the countries where ballcourts are in the archaeological parks and ballgame artifacts are in the museums.

Mixtec and Aztec Ballgame Scenes are also important to Study

 

Notes on the ballcourts pictured in 16th century Mexican Codices: AZTEC and MIXTEC

Review-ancient-Ballgames-mesoamerica-web

I lived in Graz, Austria for over eight years. Graz was the home of ADEVA, an elite book publisher which published most of the major Maya, Aztec, and Mixtec codices.

ADEVA also published my PhD dissertation on the surface of the underwaterworld iconography (waterbirds, waterlilies, deities and symbols of water and caves): MONSTER und MENSCHEN in der Maya-Kunst.

The Spanish experienced the ballgame being played in front of them.

So these descriptions are very helpful, albeit these are not the Mayan games and not the Teotihuacan games either.

 

Pok a Tok is a popular modern phrase used to give a prehispanic flavor

Tour guides in Mexico tend to use the word Pok a Tok when talking about the ballgame. But since there are 21 Mayan languages in Guatemala, several more Mayan languages in Mexico, and dozens of non-Mayan languages (including Xinca still today in Guatemala), I tend to use the basic words rubber ballgame.

What would be helpful would be a tabulated chart of all the words in prehispanic languages for the ballgame.

To scan each 1990’s publication, and to hand-correct the scanning software mistakes, takes about two months for each book.

Then we try to find the original photographs (taken in the 1970’s and 1980’s and 1990’s). This is a challenge to find negatives from those years.

Then these negatives have to be scanned. This takes about 2 months per book (mostly to find the actual negatives).

Then a graphic designer puts fresh new digital images onto the pages which were originally xerox-copied.

The original photos were taken with Leica and Hasselblad.

If you are able to donate, we can put your name, your company name, or your foundation name as the sponsor (of one book, or the whole series).

Contact FrontDesk “ at “ FLAAR dot org. Donations are tax exempt in USA. FLAAR Mesoamerica is a non-profit in Guatemala; FLAAR is tax exempt research and educational institute in USA.

 

First Posted February 2018

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