Ceremonial ballgame belt

Contributed by British Museum

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This is a stone version of the type of belt worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. It would have been too heavy to wear and was probably used during ritual ceremonies associated with the game. The ballgame was a team sport that resembled volley ball but without a net. The rubber balls were quite heavy and typically weighed three to four kilograms. Players had to keep the ball in the air using only their hips protected by padded leather belts.

Why was the ballgame played?

The ballgame has been played throughout Mexico and Central America for at least 3500 years. Games were contested on specially prepared ball courts, as part of political and religious ceremonies. The outcome of a match might help decide political and territorial disputes and occasionally the losers could be sacrificed to the gods. Ball courts were closely associated with death in Mesoamerican mythology and this belt is carved with the features of a Cane Toad, a symbol of the underworld.

The ballgame is the earliest known team sport in the world. A version called ulama is still played in Mexico today

A collective desire

I think the problem of sport as a metaphor is that it can be extraordinarily random, and if one has too much invested in it I think disappointment is inevitable. I think that one of the important things about sport in our society now is that it is one of the few things that we can agree on; that we all care about a great deal. I think there are very few things that we care about collectively.

I don’t think we care about politics in quite 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. I think there is some displacement involved with sport - it matters just enough for us to care a great deal, while at the same time it empties our minds of other things. I think that’s probably the value it plays in my life, that I want my football team to win, and while I’m wanting them to win everything else is forgotten. I think this has enormous value, especially in stressful times. There is a kind of contemplation involved in that.

Sport is a fantastic unifier and I’ve always enjoyed sport’s ability to break down barriers between people. You know if you start on your first day at the job and you see someone looking at the back page of the newspaper then you immediately have a route in to conversation in a way that non-sports fans don’t have.

Nick Hornby, writer

The game of gods

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 Popl Vuh - there are twins, archetypes as we would describe them today. 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 the game of Gods and the Lords of death every time they took to the ball court.

It’s really overly simplistic to speak of a ball game. In fact there were many ball games. The common elements were that 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.

Rubber balls were unknown in Europe: there were balls but they were stuffed with animal hide or feathers. And so those two elements, team sport and a rubber ball, have profoundly changed our own team sports in the world. But there were many, many different types of ball games that were played on a variety of levels, from state level and ritual level to simply for entertainment and it speaks too of how pervasive this great Latin American tradition is - in the fact the ball games have survived today.

E. M. Whittington, historian and writer

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 11:17 on 26 May 2010, vquerolet wrote:

    There is still a game in Valencia (Spain), a former game of tennis played in a court where public are inside it. The counting is close to the tennis and players go from one to three for each team. To get a idea of the court, try this link: http://www.casadelcisco.com/files/2809-656780-imagen/pilota2.jpg or google 'pilota valenciana'. I enjoyed very much your program this morning. Thank you.

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  • 2. At 15:09 on 26 May 2010, Keylor wrote:

    Very interesting programme. However, Mexico is not Central America,is part of North America and honestly it is a bit disappointing to hear these kinds of mistakes from the BBC and from the British Museum. I am from Costa Rica, in Central America.

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  • 3. At 19:42 on 26 May 2010, TennisSal wrote:

    I can't help wondering if the stone might be a mold for casting a belt or mask

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  • 4. At 01:16 on 27 May 2010, PJarrett wrote:

    By chance, I arrived back from my first visit to Mexico 2 days ago. We were treated to an exhibition version of the ballgame in Xcaret: it is very athletic and even without knowing the rules is fun to watch. On Sunday, I visited Chichen Itza, where there is a large ceremonial ballgame court. The guide there was confident that it was the WINNING team captain who was sacrificed.

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  • 5. At 09:13 on 27 May 2010, Tim wrote:

    Having listened to this broadcast I wondered, if the stone belt was worn at all, perhaps it was worn for a period of time prior to playing. When the belt was removed it would presumably have increased the player's feeling of lightness and agility, rather like the sensation experienced when a heavy plaster cast is removed from a repaired broken bone. However, it would have been interesting to have heard more about the context in which these objects have been found or any signs of abrasion or use which they might have. The programme did seem to imply that they had a function beyond purely being a sculptural representation of a piece of sports kit.

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  • 6. At 13:59 on 28 May 2010, Foofoo Sailor wrote:

    I have also heard the story from the guides at Chichen Itza about the winning sides being sacrificed. I think this is just nonesense for the tourists. It really wouldn't be much of an incentive to play the game well if that was the prize!

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  • 7. At 14:03 on 28 May 2010, Foofoo Sailor wrote:

    Could it be possible that the stone toad was used to create a plaster-type mold then liquid latex used to create the belt to be worn in the game?

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  • 8. At 12:27 on 30 May 2010, Ian R wrote:

    The belt reminds me a lot of the sort of ceremonial rope belts worn by the elite sumo wrestlers. They wear a very heavy belt and decorated rug before they wrestle. They're ornate, but also very heavy which helps to demostrate their strength, and are worn in a ritual ring-entering ceremony before they are taken off before the actual wreslting begins.

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  • 9. At 09:48 on 2 June 2010, J D Hill wrote:

    Did the Losing Team Get Sacrificed?

    Dear John
    Thank you for your comment about the programme this week in A History of the World in 100 objects about the Ball Game of Central America.

    The ball court you visited Chichen Itza is a court for playing the ball game that was the focus of Neil MacGregor's programme. It is very commonly said that the losers of the ball game would have then been sacrificed to the Gods. Experts on the history of the ballgame, however, suggest that the sacrifice of the losing team was a very rare event. We know from different sources that the ballgame was a very common team sport and a regular part of life. Players were drawn from all levels of society. It is clear that the losers in the vast majority of games lived to play another day.

    However, as the programme explores, there was a very close association between the game and religious ideas such a death and the afterlife. In one of the major myths of the Maya, the hero twins play the ball game with the lords of the underworld, who they defeat and kill. Because the ballgame plays such an important place in Central American religion, there are many scenes in Central American art that show the game in a mythical context.

    It is suggested that the game might have also at some times been played as part of religious ceremonies, and that in this context prisoners who were already likely to become the victims of the sacrifice might have been forced to play out the roles of the mythic ball game players. The losers of this unusual games then being sacrificed. However, this is likely to have not been the common outcome of the vast majority of games.

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  • 10. At 15:32 on 19 July 2010, ale6x wrote:

    Similar to some comments above: (I am Mexican) and we have always been taught at school, that it was indeed the winning team that was sacrificed. Poor show beeb for getting that fact wrong!
    With regards to the other comment about not wanting to play properly, the players saw it as an honour and the "ultimate" sacrifice that they were giving their gods. The players were often condemned slaves, so they felt honoured to have this form of worship bestowed on them!

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