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Neil MacGregor examines a large stone belt, a heavyweight ceremonial version of the leather and fibre padding that was used in an ancient ball game in Central America.

Neil MacGregor's history of humanity as told through one hundred objects that time has left behind. This week he is looking at objects of leisure and pleasure around the world about 2000 years ago. How were we amusing ourselves back then? Today's object is a large stone belt, a heavyweight ceremonial version of the leather and fibre padding that was used in an ancient ball game in central America. This was a game with a rubber ball that dates back as far as three and a half thousand years ago - the world's oldest known organised sport. Neil offers up the rules of the game and describes how it connected players to the realm of their gods. The historian Michael Whittington considers the ritual aspects of the game while the writer Nick Hornby describes how sport straddles the emotional territory between the sacred and the profane.

Producer: Anthony Denselow.

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15 minutes

About this object

Location: Mexico
Culture: Aztec, Maya and Central America
Period: AD 100 - 500
Material: Stone

 

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.

Did you know?

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

A collective desire

By Nick Hornby, writer

 

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.

The game of gods

By E. M. Whittington, historian and writer

 

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.

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