Mesoamerican ballcourt

Ceramic sculpture from a Western Mexican tomb showing players engaged in the Mesoamerican ballgame.

A Mesoamerican ballcourt is a large masonry structure of a type used in Mesoamerica for over 2,700 years to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, particularly the hip-ball version of the ballgame.[1] More than 1,300 ballcourts have been identified, 60% in the last 20 years alone.[when?][2] Although there is a tremendous variation in size, in general all ballcourts are the same shape: a long narrow alley flanked by two walls with horizontal, vertical, and sloping faces. Although the alleys in early ballcourts were open-ended, later ballcourts had enclosed end-zones, giving the structure an I, heavily serifed.png-shape when viewed from above.

Ballcourts were also used for functions other than, or in addition to, ballgames. Ceramics from western Mexico show ballcourts being used for other sporting endeavours, including what appears to be a wrestling match.[3] It is also known from archaeological excavations that ballcourts were the sites of sumptuous feasts, although whether these were conducted in the context of the ballgame or as another event entirely is not as yet known.[4] The siting of the most prominent ballcourts within the sacred precincts of cities and towns, as well as the votive deposits found buried there, demonstrates that the ballcourt were places of spectacle and ritual.


Ballgame court at Monte Albán
One of the ballcourts at Xochicalco. Note the characteristic I, heavily serifed.png-shape, as well as the rings set above the apron at center court. The setting sun of the equinox shines through the ring.[5]

Although ballcourts are found within most Mesoamerican sites, they are not equally distributed across time or geography. For example, the Late Classic site of El Tajin, the largest city of the ballgame-obsessed Classic Veracruz culture, has at least 18 ballcourts while Cantona, a nearby contemporaneous site, sets the record with 24. In contrast, Northern Chiapas[6] and the northern Maya Lowlands[7] have relatively few, and ballcourts are conspicuously absent at some major sites, including Teotihuacan, Bonampak, and Tortuguero.[8]

It is thought that ballcourts are an indication of decentralization of political and economic power: areas with a strong centralized state, such as the Aztec Empire, have relatively few ballcourts while areas with smaller competing polities have many.[9] At Cantona, for example, the extraordinary number of ballcourts is likely due to the many and diverse cultures residing there under a relatively weak state.[10]