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Episode 38 - Ceremonial ballgame belt

Ceremonial ballgame belt (made between 100 and 500 AD). Stone carving; made in Mexico

The stirring sound of Welsh rugby fans singing hymns at Cardiff Arms Park . Whether it's Maradona's infamous "hand of god", which he claimed scored the goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, or the carrying of the flame from the sanctuary at Olympia in Greece at the start of each Olympic Games, competitive sport and religion seem often to be closely and disconcertingly related. It's a connection that goes very far back. I suspect that few supporters today, singing hymns or cheering for their teams with fanatical enthusiasm, know that the world's earliest known team sport also had a strong religious dimension - or that the story begins not in Ancient Greece but in Central America.

" ... it was a team sport, in fact it was the first team sport that we know of in world history, and it was played with rubber." (Michael Whittington)

"It looks more like something that would have been invented when every other game had already been thought of first, you know, that this is a sort of gimmicky thing introduced by maybe the Americans in the 1980s, rather than the first organised sport." (Nick Hornby)

This week I'm exploring the world around two thousand years ago, looking at what fuelled our enjoyment and spiced up our daily lives. Today, from the woodlands pipe smokers of North America that we had in the last programme, I'm moving south to the playing fields of Central America.

I'm in the Mexican gallery in front of what looks like a giant stone horseshoe - it's about 20 inches (50 cm) long and about 4 inches (10 cm) thick and is made of a very beautiful grey-green speckled stone. When it first came to the British Museum in the 1860s they thought that it was a yoke for something like a carthorse - but there were two immediate problems with this theory: first the object is very heavy, it's about five or six stone (35 kg) - too heavy even for a horse's neck - and secondly, there were no carthorses or draught animals in Central America until the Spaniards brought them from Europe in the sixteenth century.

It was only just over 50 years ago that it was generally understood that these stone carvings had nothing to do with animals; they were meant to be worn by men. They represent the padded belts made of cloth or basketwork worn to protect the hips during ancient Central American ball games. Indeed some of these stone belts may have been moulds used to shape lighter cloth or leather padding, but the one we have in the British Museum is made of solid stone, so heavy that if it was worn it can only have been very briefly. Nowadays it would perhaps be for a quick photo call, but we don't actually know exactly when or how it might originally have been worn.

We asked the leading expert on these games, Michael Whittington, what he thought these stone belts were for:

"I believe these were ceremonial objects. Wearing an object that's 75-100 lbs around your waist during an athletic competition will slow you down considerably, so they probably were worn as part of the ritual ceremonies at the beginning of the game. They do represent the real yokes that were worn during the ball game, but those real yokes were of perishable materials and they probably, in almost all circumstances, have not survived." (Michael Whittington)

We know a bit about the Central American ball game because it was quite frequently represented by local artists, who over hundreds of years made sculptures of player figures, and models of pitches, with the public sitting on the walls of the court watching the players. Later European visitors wrote accounts of the game, and a number of stadia built specially for it still survive today. The Spaniards, when they arrived, were amazed by the actual ball that the game was played with. It was made of a substance entirely new to Europeans ... rubber. The very first view of a bouncing ball must have been extremely disconcerting - this round object, defying gravity and shooting around in random directions. The Spanish Dominican Friar Diego Duran reported a sighting:

"They call the material of this ball 'hule' (rubber) ... jumping and bouncing are its qualities, upward and downward, to and from. It can exhaust the pursuer running after it before he can catch up with it."

These balls also became a kind of currency. Spaniards recorded the Aztecs' exacting tribute payments of 16,000 rubber balls. Not many have survived, but excavations and finds made by farmers across Mexico and Central America have turned up a few, as well as hundreds of stone belts like ours - and stone reliefs and sculptures showing players with these 'yokes' or belts around their waists.

This was not an easy game. The aim was to keep the heavy rubber ball in the air and to land it eventually in the opponents' end of the court, and the ball itself could weigh anywhere from 8 lbs to an immense 30 lbs - almost 15 kg. And you're not allowed to use your hands, head or feet. Players had to use their buttocks, forearms and above all their hips, which is where a padded belt would be most useful. The actual belts used in the game, probably made of leather, wood and woven plants, had to be strong in order to protect the wearer from the heavy rubber ball, but light enough to allow the wearer to move about the court in them. In 1528, the Spanish brought two Aztec players to Europe, and a German artist painted them in mid-game, back-to-back, virtually naked, wearing what looks like specially reinforced briefs, with the ball in flight between their buttocks. The exact rules of the game are unclear, and they may have changed over the centuries as well as varying throughout Central America's different communities. What we do know is that it was played in teams of between two and seven players, and scoring was based on the result of faults, as in tennis today. These faults could be touching the ball with a prohibited part of the body such as the head or the hand, failing to return it, or sending it out of the court.

By the time our belt was made, around two thousand years ago, elaborate stone courts built specially for the game were being used. Many were rectangular in shape and several had long sloping walls, off which the ball could be bounced. Spectators could also sit along the top of these great stone structures and watch the matches unfold. Clay models show supporters cheering on the players and enjoying the game, just as football fans do today.

But these games were far more than just competitive sports, they held a special place in the belief system of the ancient Central Americans, and our stone belt is a clue to these hidden beliefs. Along the outside of the belt are carved designs, and on the front of the curve of the horseshoe shape, cut into the polished stone, is the stylised image of a toad. I can see a broad mouth stretching the whole length of the curve, and behind the eyes bulbous glands that extend back to the crouched hind legs. Zoologists have even been able to identify the species as the Giant Mexican Toad - 'Bufo marinus'. But to us it's just an ugly, rather sinister animal.

Perhaps the key to understanding this object is that this toad excretes a hallucinogenic substance, and Central Americans believed that it represented an earth goddess. Belts for ball games were made with various underworld animals carved into them, and this tells us that they were meant to be viewed not individually but rather as part of a broader ritual. It seems that the painful intensity of the ball game symbolised the constant cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death. Here's Michael Whittington again:

"Well I think it's absolutely a metaphor for how Mesoamericans view the world. When you look at one of the great creation stories in Mesoamerica - the Popol Vuh - there are twins. Their names were Xbalanque and Hunahpuh. They were ball players, they lived in the underworld, and they played ball with the lords of death, regardless of who was playing that game. It re-emphasised how Mesoamericans viewed themselves in the cosmos and in relation to the gods. So they were playing out a game of gods and the lords of death every time they took to the ball court."

It used to be thought that the losing team was always sacrificially slaughtered, but while this did later occasionally happen, at the time of our belt we don't know what lay in store for the losers. Mostly the games were an opportunity for a community to feast, to worship and to create and reaffirm social ties. It's thought that early on this was a game that both men and women could play, but by the time the Spanish encountered the Aztecs in the sixteenth century the game was being played only by men. The ball courts were designed to be sacred spaces in which offerings were buried, so making the building a living entity. The Spanish recognised the religious significance of the courts and of course wanted to replace the old local pagan religion with their new, superior, Catholic one. It cannot have been by accident that they built their cathedral in what is today Mexico City on the site of the Great Ball Court of the ancient Aztec city, Tenochtitlan. But if the courts were destroyed, the game survived the brutal conquest of Mexico and the destruction of the Aztec culture. A form of it is even played today, called 'ulama', proof, if any was needed, that once a sport embodies national identity as this one does, it has enormous staying power. The author Nick Hornby has written about the passion and the camaraderie of organised sport:

"I think there are very few things that we care about collectively - I don't think we do care about religion or God in the same way that we used to, I don't think we care about politics in the same way. But when the England football team plays, then there is a great collective desire, and there is a sense that we're all pulling in the same direction, we all want the same thing. There is a kind of contemplation involved in that. The experience of subjugating one's will to a collective, whether that's a crowd or a team, is probably akin to a religious service, because there is this sense that time has stopped and that everybody is focussed on the one thing. You can feel the collective will inside the stadium, and I think there is some displacement involved with sport - where it matters just enough for us to care a great deal, while at the same time it empties our minds of other things. I want my football team to win, and while I'm wanting them to win everything else is forgotten, and I think this has an enormous value - especially in stressful times."

And one of the striking characteristics of organised games throughout history is their capacity to transcend cultural differences, social divisions and even political unrest. Straddling the boundary between the sacred and the profane, they can be great social unifiers and dividers. As Nick Hornby says, perhaps there are few other things that we collectively care about so much in our society today. Our Mexican ceremonial belt acts as a powerful symbol of exactly how far all societies can take the obsession for mass, organised sport.

Tomorrow we stay with pleasure. But we're a world away from vast crowds bonding in almost mystic union as they watch the shifting fortunes of a ball game; we're with the rarefied, exquisite and very private pleasures of Imperial China.

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