Ball Court, Monte Alban

Ball Court, Monte Alban

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The ball court at Monte Alban

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Monte Albán, the Most Famous Zapotec Temple

Standing atop the South Pyramid, Monte Albán easily transports you back in time to when the Zapotecs called this grand place home.

Mexico has a long history and diverse population, stretching back thousands of years that include more than 60 indigenous cultures. One of the largest of those groups, Zapotecs, concentrated in the southern state of Oaxaca. The most famous remnant of their glory days – and surely the most breathtaking – is Monte Albán, a sprawling complex just a few miles outside the city of Oaxaca.

This crown jewel of the Zapotecs is one of the most-researched archaeological sites in Mexico. Looking north from the South Pyramid.

But Monte Albán is a mystery in a number of respects. Located 1,200 feet above the valley floor, it is a huge place, encompassing approximately 45 acres. At its height scientists estimate as many as 17,000 to 25,000 people inhabited the area. But the site has no rivers or discernable supplies of fresh water where the structures were built. In fact, some of the stones used to construct the buildings had to be hauled up from the valley by humans, since neither the wheel nor draft animals were available to the Zapotecs. It is surmised the site was chosen for defensive attributes (walls built for defense are along the north and west sides of Monte Albán).

Massive stones, like some of these at the observatory, were carried up from the valley below, are part of the many buildings at the site.

Scientists know other indigenous people, Olmecs and Mixtecs, also lived at and used Monte Albán, but Zapotecs are most closely associated with the site.

This leads to a burial chamber, an important place for those who lived — and died — there, and also for modern-day researchers.

The Zapotecs were most associated the ancient site, but Mixtecs liked to use the site as a place to bury their dead.

In 1987 the World Heritage Convention of the United Nations declared Monte Albán and the city center of Oaxaca City as World Heritage sites. Among the reasons Monte Albán was deemed a World Heritage site was the, “unique dimensions, which exhibit the basic chronology and artistic style of the region and for the remains of magnificent temples, ball court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions… Monte Albán represents a civilization of knowledge, traditions and artistic expressions. Excellent planning is evidenced in the position of the line buildings erected north to south, harmonized with both empty spaces and volumes. It showcases the remarkable architectural design of the site in both Mesoamerica and worldwide urbanism.” according the World Heritage’s website.

Archaeologists unearthed a large number of carved stones, like these at the visitor center, each one of which tells a story.

Time has eroded the carving of this stone, like many throughout the complex.

These replica carvings are left in the area where the originals were discovered by researchers. The second from the left may have had stomach trouble.

The restored stone columns, center, were important but not nearly as refined as the ones at Mitla, also in Oaxaca.

There are dozens of buildings at Monte Albán, including pyramids, terraces, burial chambers, an observatory (thought to be the first in Mesoamerica), patios, areas for markets and commerce, housing, and numerous other venues that have yet to be excavated. There are 170 known burial tombs at Monte Albán (the most in Mesoamerica), some, like much of the total area, have yet to be excavated.

The Great Plaza, with the observatory in the foreground, is thought to have been where markets and commerce took place.

The steps are steep and big. Great care must be taken going up and down.

The observatory is believed to be the first of its kind in Mesoamerica and was constructed to track the stars an ancient computer.

A group of visitors in the distance survey the scene with the Ball Court to their left, foreground.

As just one example, the Great Plaza stretches out more than 300 yards in length (and is more than 200 yards wide), and is laid out in a precise north to south axis. The North Platform is one of the largest stone-built structures at Monte Albán and offers clear 360-degree views of the valley and countryside. It is clear from Monte Albán’s span of time as well as the seismic activity in the area that it was built to withstand the rigors of man and nature.

The ball court, left, played a major part in the culture of the Zapotecs. It is believed the captain of the winning team was put to death.

Scientists believe construction at Monte Albán began sometime around 500 B.C. (perhaps earlier) and was inhabited for the next 1,500 years or so. But for reasons that researchers can only surmise, somewhere before or around 1,000 A.D., Monte Albán was abandoned. Some guesses associated with Monte Albán’s demise are the decline of the temple outside of Mexico City (depriving Monte Albán of a vital trade partner), the intense farming of the land needed to sustain so many people in a harsh climate, or shifting political fortunes from inter-cultural warring.

The valley, 1,200 feet below, is where the modern-day city of Oaxaca thrives. The temple complex had no year-round water supply.

The first research of Monte Albán by Westerners began in the early 1800s, on behalf of the Spanish Crown. Serious research started in the late 1850s (including a sketch that included the Great Plaza), with more detailed work that took place in the mid 1890s and continued through to the first few years of the 1900s.

There are places throughout where buildings are being restored.

The outline of a future excavation can be seen in the foreground with Oaxaca City in the distance.

But it would be the work of Alfonso Caso, starting with his initial excavations in 1931 that would reveal some of Monte Albán’s grandeur. Caso, born in Mexico City, made a number of discoveries. One of the most important was found at Tomb VI, where Caso unearthed gold and jade artifacts.

Restoration work is painstaking. This technician works on a wall away from the main part of the restored site.

A location on the plateau lends a true majesty to the scene.

Zapotecs were believed to be highly skilled in many areas, including dentistry and brain surgery. Apparently, this person needed a lot of work.

Restoration work and research continues at Monte Albán, through support by the government of Mexico and the entrance fees paid by the thousand of tourists from all over the world who visit the site throughout the year.

Monte Alban today

The site gets quite busy, especially at weekends. Monte Alban covers quite an expanse so it’s worth wearing comfy shoes. There’s little shade, so bring a hat and water if it’s sunny. The views from Monte Alban are great, especially on a clear day.

There’s a good museum at the entrance to the site with objects from the excavations undertaken at Monte Alban, although there’s not much signage in English. Guides are available – they lurk outside the entrance. Some are official, some are not, so be sure to check their credentials.



Ball court, Monte Alban, Mexico




Geographic Location

Monte Alban, Oaxaca state, Mexico



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Oaxaca Part 2: Monte Albán, Zapotec city on a hill

View from the North Platform of the Zapotec's ancient Monte Albán. Much to our surprise, Carole and I fell in love with Monte Albán. Most published photos I have seen do not remotely do it justice. Not only are the ancient ruins wonderful, but they are sited at the very top of a mountain that provides a stunning 360 degree view of the three great Valleys of Oaxaca. The Zapotec civilization was one of the most remarkable in Meso-America, but not for the usual reasons. They did not create a great empire such as those of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, or the Aztecs. They did not build a broad constellation of city states like the Maya. What the Zapotecs achieved was a civilization with an almost unbelievable longevity. Beginning as early as 600 BC, they had contacts with the Olmecs, Meso-America's earliest and most mysterious civilization. Later, the Zapotecs formed an alliance with Teotihuacan, and traded with the Maya civilizations through the end of the Classic period 800 AD. Even after Monte Alban declined and was abandoned, the Zapotecs remained in the area. They came into conflict with the arriving Mixtecs and later the rising Aztec empire. They were still culturally active when the Spanish arrived. The Zapotecs developed the first full-blown writing system in the Americas (unfortunately still mostly undeciphered). Some linguistic historians think the Zapotec language may be derived from the Olmecs themselves! Altogether an astonishing accomplishment, when you consider that all these other civilizations rose and fell in much shorter periods of time. What the Zapotecs had was staying power.

Map of Monte Albán, the Zapotec's city on a hill. Monte Albán was a planned city, created by a confederation of Zapotec towns in the Central Oaxaca Valleys. The Zapotecs had been rising in power for some time, and their written language and an accurate calendar were fully developed as early 600 BC. Somewhere around 500 BC, using human labor only, the Zapotecs began building Monte Albán. They leveled the tops of three small interconnected mountains to hold their great pyramids and palaces. Terraces for living space and agriculture ran in concentric rings down the sides of the hills. The main city was built atop Cerro de Jaguar, or Jaguar Mountain. The city plan is shown above. The flattened area may have been as big as 12 acres, with a large platform on the south (upper left) and another on the north (lower right). The two platforms were separated by a huge plaza lined on both sides with temples and palaces. In the center of this Grand Plaza were several buildings constructed for religious and astronomical purposes. In the course of my two-part segment on Monte Albán, I'll show you many of these ancient structures.
View to the southeast from Monte Albán's North Platform. Three great valleys intersect in the middle of the State of Oaxaca. Monte Albán's mountain top sites occupy the center of that intersection, just west of the present-day city of Oaxaca which can be seen in the distance. For a map of the Valleys of Oaxaca, click here. Be sure to wait for the map which emerges as an overlay on the satellite view. Why build on the mountain tops? Archaeologists think there were at least three good reasons for this extremely difficult, costly, and time-consuming project. First, the river valleys at that time were prone to flooding. Second, the hilltop provided an obvious defensive position, and an excellent lookout point against approaching invasion forces. Third, in this deeply and pervasively religious society the height of the mountains placed the Zapotec religious and political leaders closer to their gods. Twenty-five hundred-year-old terraces can be seen from a distance. Above you can see one of the other two hilltops which form the Monte Albán complex. The site above is not open to visitors as both it and the other small hill top are still under excavation. However, the terraces where common people lived and farmed can clearly be seen running from left to right just below the crest of the hill. The hill on which the main Monte Albán complex sits is at 1940 meters (6,400 ft.), rising 400 meters (1,300 ft.) from the valley floor. The Zapotecs of Monte Albán are sometimes called "People of the Clouds." At its height, there may have been as many as 30,000 people living in and around the city.
Rounded corners of the North Platform are an unusual feature. When leveling off the main platform, the builders left a large rock formation on the north end and used it as part of the foundation for the North Platform. The platform is surrounded by high walls with rounded corners, seen above. These corners are a very unusual feature not found else where in Zapotec structures, and rarely found anywhere in Meso-America, with the exception of the Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal in Yucatan. Keep in mind as you view all these structures that, in the full glory of Monte Albán, they were smoothly stuccoed and beautifully painted. Even as ruins, however, the ancient natural stone holds a warm beauty of its own.
North Platform grand staircase viewed from the west side of the Great Plaza. The North Platform is a whole complex unto itself, and I have devoted a good part of my second Monte Albán segment to it. Some of its complex of temple pyramids can be seen rising above the top of the great staircase.
View of the main Ball Court, looking directly south toward the South Platform. The main Ball Court lies along the eastern side of Monte Albán, just south of the North Platform. It is constructed in a similar fashion to those found at Tollan, capital of the Toltecs, and the Maya city of Chichen Itza. The layout resembles a capital "I " with short cross pieces at the top and bottom, and a long trunk bordered by slanting walls. The walls would have been smooth in ancient times so that the hard rubber ball could be bounced off them in play. Spectators would have sat along the tops of the walls and the ends of the court.
Another view of the Ball Court, looking slightly southeast. The temple known as Building II can be seen in the background. This Ball Court is unusual in two respects. First, the large stone rings found on either side of some of the other great ball courts are not present and were apparently not part of the Zapotec's game. Second, unlike nearly all other ball courts discovered in Meso-America, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was connected with the game. No one knows all the rules of the original game, nor do we fully comprehend the religious significance it had for the Zapotecs. The game may have played some role in settling disputes. The Mixtecs moved into the area after the decline of the Zapotec civilization (750-800 AD) and adopted many of its practices. In the highland Mixtec areas of the State of Oaxaca, they still play a ball game related to that once played in this great Ball Court at Monte Albán, to the shouts and cheers of ancient spectators.
Stela rises above the Ball Court. Stelae are upright stone slabs placed near or in front of major buildings in many ancient Meso-American sites. They are often carved with scenes and dates to commemorate great events in that civilization's history. I was unable to approach any closer to the stela here because of the restricted access. Possibly it records a great victory for the "home team" like a statue put up to commemorate a victory in the World Cup soccer matches.
Another unusual feature of the Monte Albán ball courts. Unlike any of the other ancient ball courts I have seen in Mexico, the Monte Albán courts each contain niches in two diagonally opposite corners of the courts. These niches apparently contained statues of gods who were associated with the ball game. You can still see a relief carving in the stone at the base of the niche.
East side of the Grand Plaza, looking toward the South Platform. At 300 meters long and 200 wide (984 ft. lg, 656 ft. wd.), the size of the Great Plaza is hard to capture without either using an extremely wide-angle lens, or photographing it from such a distance that much detail disappears. I have tried to show it three photos: the east side (seen above), the west side, and the central area. About half way down the east side of the Plaza are two temples with broad staircases facing each other. Between them in the grassy area is a sunken rectangular area that is called the Water Shrine. All of these structures have a religious and astronomical relationship with each other. The Ball Court is out of view to the lower left. The next large structure on the left is Building II, followed by Building P. On the right side of the photo are the structures in the center of the Great Plaza, Buildings I, H, and G, and The Observatory, also known as Building J, which is adjacent to the South Platform.
West side of the Great Plaza, looking south. The small figures of the visitors give a sense of the huge scale of the Plaza. On the left of this picture are the structures in the center of the Great Plaza seen in the previous photo. Due south is the South Platform. On the right (west) side are twin buildings, M and K, separated by the Palace of the Dancers. We'll take a look at the buildings on the west side in segment 2 of Monte Albán.
Center buildings of the Great Plaza, with the South Platform in the background. Because of their centrality in the entire complex, these structures must have had a special importance. In fact, Building J, the structure closest to the grand staircase of the South Platform, is among the oldest of the Monte Albán structures and records some of the history of the Zapotec conquests on its sides.
Building II (left) and Building P (rt.), looking northeast. Building P has an very unusual feature. About half way up the great staircase is an opening. A shaft reaches straight down to a small room inside the structure. Twice a year, in early May and August, the sun passes directly over this opening and sends a shaft of light to the room below. The shaft can also be used as a "site tube" to view the star system Pleiades. To the left of the picture you can see a small group of people gathered around the Water Shrine, which is located directly between the great staircases of Building P on the east side of the Plaza, and Building H of the central group.
The Water Shrine. Carole and our guide stand to the left of the shrine. Water filled the recessed area surrounding the central structure. Apparently this shrine filled both a religious purpose and a practical one as a water source. The great Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso found a wonderfully carved jade mask of the Bat God buried in the southeast corner, just out of sight on the right. Building P is in the background on the upper right of the photo. On the west side of the shrine (out of sight behind Carole and our guide) is a tunnel opening. There is a matching tunnel opening on the east side of the Water Shrine between it and Building P.
Stone steps lead down into ancient tunnels used by Zapotec priests. The tunnels lead to Building H of the central group, and Building P. The one to Building P is the access to the room where the vertical shaft rises to catch the light beam from the once-a-year passage of the sun overhead. The importance of the Water Shrine can be better understood if you think about the semi-arid character of the Oaxaca Valleys. Water was an extremely important issue to most Meso-American cultures, and the Zapotecs were no different, particularly in this semi-arid location. Accordingly, they had both a God of Rain and Lightning, called Cociyo in Zapotec, and possibly a Water Goddess.
Building H, of the central group, contains some unique Zapotec features. One typical feature of Zapotec temple architecture is a broad, flat, sloping surface on either side of the main staircase. Huge crowds of people could occupy the Great Plaza for religious ceremonies. The position of Building H, as the "center of the center" so to speak, would enable the ruler-priests to be completely surrounded by the awed throngs. A sort of ancient theatre-in-the-round, if you will. The sudden appearance of a priest who had secretly moved from the tunnel entrance to the top of the temple on Building H would have created a sensation.
Another unique feature of Zapotec architecture is called a scapula. This feature is found on numerous buildings at Monte Albán. It consists of a rectangle with the bottom side open, as can be seen in the photo above. A scapula is normally a decoration worn suspended from a person's neck and resting on their breast bone. Architecturally, these "scapulas" hang from each end of the rectangular stone design.
Staircase leads to the entrance of Building J, The Observatory. This building is unique not only to the Zapotecs, but within in Monte Albán itself. The Observatory is a five-sided pyramid shaped like a huge astronomical pointer. In addition to its unusual shape, its walls functioned as an historical record of the Zapotecs' conquest of their neighbors. The Observatory is located at the southern end of the central group in the Grand Plaza, just before the grand staircase of the South Platform.
The Observatory (Building J) is shaped like an arrowhead. The head of the arrow points southwest, a 45 degree angle from the strict north-south orientation of all the rest of the city. The stairs seen in the previous picture are the darkened area of the design on the lower left. There was a rectangular temple on top of the original structure to which only the priests had access. Archaeologists have used a planetarium to recreate the skies of 250 BC. A line drawn from the tip of the arrowhead on the upper right, and leading down (northeast) through the middle of the staircase will pass directly over top of Building P and its mysterious vertical shaft. Other measurements show orientations to the setting of the Southern Cross and the star system of Capella. On either side of the tip of the arrowhead are large flat areas with fascinating relief carvings celebrating early Zapotec conquests. The Observatory is one of the oldest structures of Monte Albán.
Relief carving on the arrowhead tip of The Observatory. The relief carving above is one of a great number that used to cover the exterior walls of The Observatory. The design on top, which appears to be a castle-like structure with twin towers, one on each side, is the symbol representing Monte Albán. Below this is an up-side down head, representing the overthrow of a neighboring town or city. Certain aspects of the design indicate the name of the conquered town. The Zapotecs did not build Monte Albán and their civilization through voluntary cooperation. They maintained an iron-fisted rule over conquered peoples through which they obtained tribute and forced labor to build their great pyramids and palaces.
View from the North Platform looking south. A single great column remains in this part of the ruin. To the right of the column is part of a wall that betrays the influence of the Teotihuacan Empire. If you look at the bottom of the wall, you can see that below the vertical section is a small section that slants outward to meet the floor. This is a very typical feature of Teotihuacan architecture that Carole and I saw when we visited that great ruin north of Mexico City. In fact, a good part of the North Platform may have been the "Teotihuacan Quarter" where their merchants and diplomats lived. There were apparently strong commercial and political relations between the Zapotecs and the Teotihuacans when that empire flowered between 100 BC and 500 AD, and a "Zapotec Quarter" has been found at Teotihuacan. However, as large and powerful as the Teotihuacans were, the Zapotecs long outlasted them.


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Tlachtli, the ball court, or field, used for the ritual ball game ( ollama) played throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Possibly originating among the Olmecs (La Venta culture, c. 800–c. 400 bce ) or even earlier, the game spread to subsequent cultures, among them those of Monte Albán and El Tajín the Maya (as pok-ta-pok) and the Toltec, Mixtec, and Aztec. In Aztec times, ollama was a nobles’ game and was often accompanied by heavy betting. Various myths mention the ball game, sometimes as a contest between day and night deities. It is still played in isolated regions. Tlachtli and ollama are Nahuatl words.

The ball court, shaped like a capital I with serifs and oriented north–south or east–west, represented the heavens. Players, wearing heavy padding, used elbows, knees, and hips to knock a solid rubber ball into the opponent’s end of the court. In Post-Classic times (after c. 900 ce ), the object was to hit the ball through one of two vertical stone rings (placed on each side of the court). The ball represented the sun (or moon or stars), and the rings represented the sunrise and sunset or the equinoxes. Extremely violent, the game often caused serious injury and, occasionally, death. In addition, human sacrifice was also part of the ritual surrounding tlachtli.

The Sacred Aztec Ball Game

The Spanish King Carlos V and his court must have been thoroughly amazed when a group of ballplayers from Mexico -whose lands had recently been conquered in The King’s name at the beginning of the Sixteenth century- demonstrated their ability to skillfully hit a rubber ball with their hips. It was Hernando Cortés, the conquistador of the Aztec empire, who on one of his trips back to the Spanish Peninsula took these players with him, causing great admiration among the Europeans.

Aztec Tlachtli Warrior

The audience, little accustomed to a public spectacle of semi-naked bodies, could easily appreciate the muscle contractions in these players’ bodies, as their only attire was their maxtlatl -the loincloth traditionally used by men- and leather protectors for their buttocks, knees, and ankles.

In addition to their movements, which were at the same time graceful and virile, the spectators were impressed by the speed and force of the rebound of those spherical objects made of rubber -a material native to America, unknown until then in the Old World, where balls were made of rags or leather, which made them slow and heavy.

What these men were playing is what we call Prehispanic ball game or ulama, the Aztec word derived from ollin, which means movement, struggle, and union of opposites, which in turn is derived from the root ulli or rubber. Other names for this game are tlachtli and pok-ta-pok, depending on the area where it is played.

Sacred Ball Game Figures

Blood that renovates life

Although on occasions the ball game was played only as a sport or for entertainment, from ancient times the ulama had a predominantly ritual divination purpose. It was used to divine the Sun’s destiny, in order to guarantee the preservation of the cosmic and universal order.

Death by sacrifice was integrated into the symbolism of Pre-Hispanic religion and cosmogony and was an essential part of some of ancient Mexicans’ sacred rituals. In these rites, the blood that was spilled became an element that contributed to fighting the adverse forces of the gods of darkness. The ball symbolized the Sun, whereas the players represented stellar beings. In this ritual, the two teams -each with one to seven men- confronted each other, some supporting the movement of the Sun, others trying to stop it. The player who made a movement contrary to the course the ball should have –same as that of the Sun- was decapitated so as to, with his death, avert the fatal occurrence of the extinction of the Sun and, with it, the end of the Universe.

Spanish documents describing the ball game players

But the symbolism of the ball game wad, with it, the end of darkness. It was also a propitiatory fertility ritual: the blood of the decapitated player represented rain, the precious liquid that nourished the fields and allowed plants to strive and, therefore, men to be fed and life to continue. Because of this, at the end of the sacred ulama there were neither victorious nor vanquished teams: the decapitated players didn’t ever lose because their sacrifice was considered an honor since, after all, it meant the triumph of the cosmic order.

The Tlachco or Ball Court, a sacred space

Although present-day ulama players can play in open areas or esplanades and before any type of audience, in Pre-Hispanic times this ritual’s symbolism necessarily required a sacred and closed space that reproduced the celestial setting where the solar movement took place.

Some researchers believe that the ball game originated among the Olmecs -the first inhabitants of the Gulf of Mexico’s coasts, in approximately 1500 B.C. However, in none of the great Olmec cities of Veracruz or Tabasco has there yet been found any vestiges of ball courts, the most significant evidence of the presence of this ritual sport. The oldest known ulama court was found in Chiapas and has been dated between the year 600 B.C. and 100 A.D. From this time and up until the European conquest, at the beginning of the Sixteenth century. in all of the territory known as Mesoamérica (which stretches from northwestern Mexico down to Central America) the generalized practice of the ball game required a specific architectural structure.

The Tlachco or Ball Game Court

In general terms, this structure consisted of a large patio with a peculiar shape that brings to mind the capital letter “I”, or perhaps two “T”‘s joined at the base, in such a way that it has a narrow midsection and two wider ends called cabezales or headers. Although this is the basic structure of the majority of the ulama courts, they can be found in many variants and sizes throughout the Mesoamerican territory: some are sunk in relation to the floor where the spectators watch the game others are level with the plazas. But all of them have inclined walls, or taludes, and vertical surfaces. Embedded in some of these walls are great rings of stone upon which the ball should bounce or pass through, which made the game very spectacular.

The presence of sculptured elements, such as the above-mentioned rings, markers on the ground, niches, walkways and high reliefs, allow the ritual and symbolic sense of each one of these courts to be identified.

Ulama, the Sacred Ball Game

In the area belonging to the present day state of Oaxaca, for example, the most well-known ball courts, such as the ones in Monte Albán, Dainzú and Yagul, have the peculiarity of lacking stone rings some have niches in the cabezales and circular disks in the patio, upon which the balls were thought to have been bounced. It seems strange, on the other hand, that in Teotihuacán, the City of the Gods (in Mexico’s Central Plateau), no ulama courts have yet been discovered. However, the mural paintings of the Palace of Tepantitla portray both the players and the sacrificial rituals associated with this activity, and in the nearby La Ventilla area, a beautiful ulama marker has been found.

The archaeological sites of Tula, Xochicalco in Central Mexico, show that since 700 A.D. the particularity of this ritual sport was the presence of huge stone rings embedded in the walls that rest upon the taludes. This indicates that the game required the players to make the ball go through the ring, hitting it with their hips. In Tula these rings were decorated with reliefs of undulating serpents and the walkway with the images of warriors, elements which strongly link this city, capital of Quetzalcóatl, the Aztec’s main god, with the Mayans of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Sacred Ball Game Players

Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec empire, had numerous courts for this ritual sport, the largest of them in the Templo Mayor. The inhabitants of El Tajín, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, for their part, erected many courts (seventeen) in their city, the same as the people of Toluquilla and Ranas, in the Querétaro mountain area, and those of Cantona. in Puebla. It is notable that the main court in El Tajín has, as significant elements, six magnificent reliefs that associate this ceremony with the worship of pulque, and depict the crowning moment of a player’s decapitation.

The cult of the ball game in these archaeological sites surely surpasses its practice in other Mesoamerican regions. If today these archaeological sites, with their many ball courts, still strongly impress us, imagine what it would have been like in their time of splendor, with this ritual sport being played simultaneously. with all its paraphernalia, in different ulama courts.

Sacred Ball-game participant

Without a doubt, the Mayan area in the Yucatán Peninsula is where the largest number of ball courts has been found. There is practically no site in all of this extensive area where at least one structure dedicated to this mythical ritual sport wasn’t built.

Of all of them, the Great Ballcourt in Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, built around the year 900 A.D., is the most spectacular. both because of its great dimensions and its well-preserved construction and sculptures. This architectural complex boasts, among others, the Temple of the North Cabezal, where phallic cults are depicted, and the Temple of the Jaguar, with its descending serpents, associated with the itzaes’ military victories. The rings or markers in this ball court have the shape of two undulating plumed serpents, associated with Kukulcán, the Mayan representation of the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl.

Carving depicting a decapitated player and beams of serpents

The reliefs on the walkways particularly stand out: they portray richly dressed players and the decapitation of one of them as a final offering to the creation of the Universe, which is why the blood which bursts from his neck is transformed into a beam of serpents, a fertility symbol par excellence. That is why the flowering plant that, like a climbing vine, also emerges from the decapitated man’s neck and covers the background, alludes to the main significance of this ceremony: the blood that was spilled in sacrifice nourishes the earth, thus allowing the continuity of life in the Universe.

Game, sport, or ritual: ulama symbolizes the sacred movement, vital and transcendent. It is a life that is transformed into death to perpetuate life it is man’s blood that fertilizes the earth and wards off the spectre of hunger, allowing the continuity of human existence on earth and preventing the darkness of night from forever taking over the world.
Although the game of Ulama has been slowly disappearing since the Spanish Conquest, today we are fortunate to find that it is being recovered in various Mexican regions. The state of Sinaloa has the great merit of having kept the game alive until our days, spreading it to faraway regions such as the state of Quintana Roo, where it is played in Xcaret Park in various modalities and with courts constructed expressly for this purpose, for the good fortune and enjoyment of all those who visit.

An Underground Temple Revealed

When Scott Hammerstedt saw the anomaly pop up on the computer screen, his first instinct was to keep quiet. There was no sense getting the others excited if it were a false alarm.

The Oklahoma archaeologist needed to run more data before he could confidently share the discovery of a lifetime. So, as other team members milled around the house after another long day of field work, Hammerstedt sat quietly tapping on his laptop and biting his tongue.

Within a half hour, he had what he needed. “Come look at this!” he finally exclaimed. And that is when the party started.

“I think we had a few cocktails that night,” Hammerstedt says. “Everyone was super excited.”

Hammerstedt, a senior researcher at the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, was part of a team of University of Oklahoma scientists who discovered what appears to be the remains of a buried religious temple, which could further explain the origins of the 2,500-year-old city of Monte Albán, home to one of North America’s oldest civilizations.

OU archaeology professor Marc Levine led the 2017 expedition to the site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they used geophysical technology to explore what lies beneath an 11-acre expanse known as Monte Albán’s Main Plaza. Archaeologists have been studying the ancient site for nearly a century, but Levine and his crew were the first to survey the Main Plaza with the modern technological wonders of magnetic gradiometry, ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistance. Results of their findings were published earlier this year in the journal, Latin American Antiquity.

Using those three tools, Levine, Hammerstedt, Oklahoma Archeological Survey Director Amanda Regnier and a cadre of other specialists spent a summer month at Monte Albán, sweeping the plaza for clues to the city’s mysterious past. They had been working for three weeks, running across several interesting images, but had made no startling discoveries until the final week of their stay. That’s when images from what appeared to be the remains of three buildings in the center of the plaza area appeared on Hammerstedt’s computer screen.

“We were pretty excited, and all of our instruments confirmed the discovery,” Levine says. “The irony is that we were not even going to look in that area, so this was unbelievable. We feel very fortunate that we found something we could hang our hat on. It fulfilled all of our expectations and more for this project.”

Levine, who also serves as an associate curator at OU’s Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, says the buildings’ foundations are buried just a foot below ground. The walls were likely dismantled in antiquity and the materials, like stone blocks, reutilized for later constructions.

Each of the three imaging technologies used to locate the hidden structures works differently, with unique strengths and weaknesses, Hammerstedt says. By sweeping the plaza with all three instruments, the overlapping technologies compensated for limitations of each and provided more accurate images.

Through those images, the OU team could recognize structural attributes similar to later temples that had been excavated at Monte Albán. Levine says the close comparisons strengthen the argument that their discovery is a temple that was built during Monte Albán’s early history, sometime between A.D. 200 and 500 B.C.

The main building is square, with walls that are 59 feet long on a side, ranging from five to more than six feet thick, possibly to support heavy, stone block superstructures. The main building appears to have had columns on one end, a staircase and an entrance facing east.

As with all science, one discovery can lead to many more questions, and Monte Albán is no exception. While Levine thinks the remains were from a temple, he admits there are other possibilities and other questions, such as precisely when the buildings were built, who used them and when they were torn down and buried.

The answers will require excavation, which is complicated by Monte Albán’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, where excavation applications are heavily scrutinized.

Nonetheless, Levine is moving forward, hoping to obtain a permit to study the site further, even if only to excavate a small area to recover material, such as charcoal, that can be carbon dated to determine when the structures were built. The information could significantly advance understanding of the city’s historical development.

For generations, the ancient capital has been an international tourist attraction with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Inhabited from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 1,200, Monte Albán is built on a mountain and comprises terraces, artificial mounds, dams, canals and pyramids, along with magnificent temples, ball courts, tombs and carvings with hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Levine says an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people populated the capital at its peak, with hundreds of thousands more living in adjacent communities that formed what amounted to an ancient metropolis with an interconnected system of government and markets.

“Monte Albán is one of the earliest urban societies in Mesoamerica,” Levine says. “Imagine it on a global map as one of the flickering lights where people were doing unusual things like building politically complex centers that were home to thousands of people.”

Just as in other parts of the world at that time, stratification within society began to develop with elites, commoners and a servant class, Levine says. Leaders would sponsor trade expeditions, sending parties hundreds of miles, where they would exchange goods as well as ideas.

“Monte Albán is one of the first urban societies in Mesoamerica,” Levine says. “So, it has long been considered a place to test and investigate ideas about the origins and development of complex urban societies. We want to know why these cities arose in Mesoamerica the same way we ask why they were established in Mesopotamia or in Egypt or China.

“America is another one of those areas in the world where we can examine the initial development of social inequality with powerful leaders, powerful states. There was a constellation of early cities that were doing similar things at the same time.”

But Levine says Monte Albán became a regional capital, conquering nearby neighbors and ultimately controlling a large area.

“So, Monte Albán and places like it represent real milestones in world history. It is important for us to understand the history of how we got to where we are today. In many ways, we can relate to Monte Albán’s urban society because it’s somewhat like our own,” Levine says.

People can relate to a social system where there is a capital city and outlying developments, similar to modern-day urban and suburban communities, he says.

“In many ways, this is easier than relating to a hunter-gatherer group that moves across the Rocky Mountains, traveling dozens of miles hunting elk,” he says. “That’s very different from our experience, but Monte Albán represents a pivotal point in history when people began living in cities, where trade and commerce became more important than ever before, and social differences emerged between the haves and the have-nots.

“We talk about ‘the 99%’ today. This is the beginning of sharp social distinctions between commoners and elites, so Monte Albán is an important place to study early inequality and we need to understand its history.”

Levine says there is scientific debate over what drove the growth of Monte Albán. How did the city attract tens of thousands of people to live in the region and why was its culture prosperous and successful for so long?

Some argue religion was the glue that held society together through powerful religious leaders and ideas. Others believe Monte Albán was founded on militarism with strong commanders who provided protection in an uncertain social environment filled with conflict and conquest.

Levine says the discovery he and his team made in 2017 could play a significant role in answering questions about Monte Albán’s origins, growth and long prosperity.

“If we found a temple at Monte Albán that dates to the earliest period, if we can verify it is a temple, then that may support the idea Monte Albán, early on, was a kind of religious mecca that attracted people to come live there, and religion was the social glue and engine that ran the place,” Levine says.

“So, the significance of our discovery is that it can transform our understanding of what Monte Albán really was,” Levine adds. “And, in a broader sense, it can weigh in on these kinds of meta-arguments and clarify what early Mesoamerican civilization was all about, showing us the most important catalyst for the development of complex societies in the New World.”

Oklahoma Archeological Survey researcher Hammerstedt credits geophysical technology for revolutionizing archaeology by allowing scientists to cover every inch of open space within an excavation site. Because of such technology, he says, archaeologists are returning to large plaza areas like the one they explored at Monte Albán to look for answers long hidden.

“On the day we made our discovery, I knew we had found some interesting stuff,” Hammerstedt says. “But I didn’t know at the time we had something that interesting. I can say I have only been to Mexico once in my life, but while I was there, I dropped the mic.”

As their discovery celebration wound down in 2017, Levine wondered what he would tell the local media, and he finally concluded it would be a simple story that any archaeologist would love to share.

“I told them that I found a buried temple,” he says.

Chip Minty is a Norman-based writer and the principal of Minty Communications, LLC.

The Importance of the Rubber Ball

Before we talk about the significance of the “ball-game” in many of the civilizations of Mesoamerica, we want to address different important aspects that went into the logistics of the game. One of the most important pieces of the game is the ball. While, in modern times, we consider the availability of balls for different sports and activities to be a given fact, the acquisition of a ball was extremely important. The ball that was used for the “ball-game” in Mesoamerica was in fact made of rubber. The use of rubber was important in the Olmec, Aztec and Maya civilizations of Mesoamerica.

Rubber was created by taking latex from rubber tress (that were in abundance in Mesoamerica) and adding juice from morning glory vines. The advanced engineering skills these civilizations used to make different types of rubber are very impressive. Rubber was important not only for making this ball but also for other things such as making rubber sandals.To create different types of rubber they changed the amounts of latex and juice that they added to their mixture. According to Rachel Kaufman of National Geographic News, “A 50-50 blend of morning glory juice and latex created rubber with maximum bounciness, while a 75-25 mix of latex and morning glory made the most durable material.”[1]

Rubber was a large part of the lives of these civilizations. Often, we tend to think of ancient civilizations are primitive and as our developments in modern time being the most sophisticated and advanced. However, rubber serves as an example of the incredibly advanced developments these civilizations had. Specifically in the Aztec civilization, their manipulation of rubber showed their intensely scientific minds and their engineering capabilities. It is important to remember that while our modern civilizations are very advanced as well, there is a great deal that we can learn from the developments in technology made in ancient times.

The type of court used to play the “ball-game” depended on the zone where it was being played. For example, in the lowlands Mayan area the ball courts had open ends which were thought to keep entry to the courts limited for ritual purposes. The courts had vertical walls with stone rings in the center.

The highland Maya zones were shaped like an “I” and had slanted walls. They also had stone heads on each wall. The size and structure of the courts suggests a relationship to the significance of the ritual and the authority of the ruler of that site. Generally speaking however, the ball game was played with the rubber ball in an attempt to get the ball in the hoop, wherever the hoops were placed on the courts. The location of the hoops changed depending on the court, as well as the incline of the walls. Since they could not use their hands, those who were playing used protectors on their knees and hips in order to be able to hit the ball. More specific rules, however, were particular to the site of the ball game and were subject to change. Despite any differences in the layout of the game and specific rules, overall, the game had to be played using ones body to try to put the ball in the hoop.

Watch the video: The Ball Game Juego de Pelota at Monte Alban (May 2022).