Late Classic Maya
Usumacinta River area, Mexico or Guatemala
Ball Court Panel
43.2 x 25.1 cm (17 x 9.9 in.)
Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund, 1965.407
At the heart of every Mayan city was a sumptuous ceremonial area composed of magnificent buildings arranged around a plaza. This stone relief was part of a series of sculptures that adorned the staircase of a royal ball court, where Mayans engaged in a ritual ballgame using a fast rubber ball. Surrounded by hieroglyphs, the relief depicts two rulers facing one another, separated by a game ball (shown enlarged). To avoid injury, Mayan ball players wore protective gear, including a padded yoke, hip and knee pads, and sometimes helmets. In this relief, one of the players, slightly more eroded, stands with his hand outstretched. His opponent is portrayed in a standard dramatic "save" pose, diving to return the ball from the floor of the court. The standing figure wears a jaguar costume, a skull-shaped breastplate, and a hacha at the waist.
Invented about 3,000 years ago and played throughout Mesoamerica, ballgames were staged to celebrate the inauguration of rulers, resolve disputes between different communities, and predict the outcome of important events. Ballgames were also associated with death and rebirth, as well as with the cosmic movements of the sun and moon in relation to the seasonal cycles. The Mayans interpreted the game results as indicators of the success or failure of harvest, military expeditions, or other events of state. Some relief panels even depict the sacrifice of losing players—evidence of the solemn role that games played in Mayan ritual.