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A group of London researchers try out the ancient Maya ballgame

Bringing the ancient Maya ballgame to life...

We are most grateful to Claudia Zehrt, a research student at the Institute of Archaeology, London, for this brief report of a pioneering attempt in September 2013 by a group of researchers to ‘have a go’ at playing the ancient Maya game - part of the second annual UCL Maya Glyphs workshop. The main picture, right, shows some of the players before the game, with protective gear in place...!

Pic 1: Eva Jobbova on the attack with the opposite team (Prof. Elizabeth Graham and Dr. Ramzy Barrois) defending
Pic 1: Eva Jobbova on the attack with the opposite team (Prof. Elizabeth Graham and Dr. Ramzy Barrois) defending (Click on image to enlarge)

The MayaGlyphs weekend in September 2013 included a workshop about the Mesoamerican ballgame (learn more about these events from the links below...) The ‘theoretical’ part of the workshop lasted the whole day Saturday and the morning of the Sunday. Dr. Christophe Helmke (University of Copenhagen) and Dr. Ramzy Barrois (University of Paris 1) introduced the basic concepts and variations of the Mesoamerican ballgame through Classic Maya texts and iconography, as well as ethnohistorical and anthropological examples. After a short lunch-break on Sunday, the group went over to the UCLU gym to put the theoretical knowledge into practice and play the ancient Maya ballgame...

Pic 2: A high ball (we didn’t manage that very often) being played from left to right, with the team on the right just considering who will take the ball to return it
Pic 2: A high ball (we didn’t manage that very often) being played from left to right, with the team on the right just considering who will take the ball to return it (Click on image to enlarge)

The ball used was a normal volleyball and participants were wearing their regular gym clothes and knee and wrist and/or elbow pads. Before the workshops, we had crafted some ‘ballgame belts’ for hip protection, made from long pieces of rope, wrapped in sheets (and fixed with duct tape). We started the practical session with a warm up, practicing the different ways of hitting the ball with the hip or elbow. After that we started playing, with Dr. Helmke acting as the referee and commentator. We split into two teams of three people each and ended up playing for a few hours.

Pic 3: A flyer for the 2014 Maya Glyphs study weekend; will the ballgame be in the programme again...?
Pic 3: A flyer for the 2014 Maya Glyphs study weekend; will the ballgame be in the programme again...? (Click on image to enlarge)

A point was given to the team that managed to play the ball in a way that it hit the ground in the other team’s playing field with the opponents being unable to play it back. We were only allowed to hit the ball with hips, elbows, and knees. Although the iconography often shows players leaning backwards to hit the ball with their hips, we found that in practice (at least for us unpractised players without the ‘real’ equipment) we ended up hitting the ball mostly with our knees, and, if it bounced a bit higher, with the elbow. The playing itself was a load of fun and we found that for us it mostly consisted of short bursts of frantic activity, until the ball went out or a point was scored, interspersed with breaks in which the teams gathered themselves (and often got off the floor). For most of the time the teams went with a ‘striker’ in front and two people standing further behind and a bit apart, more as defenders.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 26th 2014

Come to the 2014 Mayaglyphs workshop ‘Maya on the Thames’...
The Mesoamerican Ballgame: an educational website
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