The recent discovery of a stone disk referred to as a “Mayan scoreboard” at Chichén Itzá made waves across the world last week. The discovery is important, but much of the coverage is incorrect or, at the very least, incomplete.
One of the claims circulating is that this object, now nicknamed by experts as the “ball players disc,” was used to keep score during the ”match.” Though it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty what purpose the disc had, there is no evidence to suggest that it was actually used for scorekeeping.
The object is 9.5 centimeters thick, with a diameter of 32.5 centimeters, and weighs roughly 40 kilograms. Sculpted into circular stone is a scene depicting two players wearing ceremonial regalia.
The player on the left appears to be wearing a feathered crest, while the player on the right is adorned with what is described as a serpent turban — a fairly common motif in Chichén Itzá. Surrounding the scene are several glyphs, including the date 12 Eb 10 Cumku on the short count calendar, which corresponds to the year 894 CE.
It is notable that both figures represented on the object are of the same size, which suggests that they were of similar status, unlike other scenes often seen in Mesoamerican art which depict victors and/or rulers towering above vanquished foes.
This remarkable object was discovered within a collapsed arch in Chichén Itzá’s Casa Colorada complex, not the grand ballcourt as has been reported by several outlets. Experts now believe the disk was embedded within this particular archway found half a meter below the surface, which served as one of the entrances to the Casa Colorada complex.
Though much smaller than Chichén Itzás grand ballcourt, which is by far the largest in Mesoamerica, it is by no means small; and is, in fact, larger than average.
The stone disk was discovered by INAH archaeologist Lizbeth Beatriz Mendicuti Pérez. The find is significant for several reasons, including that it contains the first legible glyphs found at Chichén Itzá in just over 11 years.
Several media outlets took this to mean that evidence of Mayan glyphs is rare in Chichén Itzá, which is not at all the case. Rather, this is a byproduct of the fact that the site is already one of the most thoroughly excavated and researched in all of Mexico.
The confusion over its utility as some kind of scoreboard likely stemmed from a translation error. The word marcador in INAH’s Spanish-language press release can mean “scorekeeper.” But the word can also be used to make reference to a particular location, as in “X marks the spot.”
It is relevant to note that several objects associated with Mesoamerican ballcourts have been referred to as markers, including stone discs often found at the center of these ceremonial complexes.
The Mesoamerican ballgame known in Yucatán as Pok ta Pok traces its origins back to the second millennium BCE. But in fact, this game is really best described as a ceremony. It is widely believed to be a metaphor for the constant battle between the forces of good and evil — life and death. In some places and times, ritual sacrifice was a component of the ceremony, with war captives being the most common victims.
During the game, players struck the ball with their hips through an elevated stone hoop. Or at least this is believed to be the case most of the time. That being said, some versions of the ceremony allowed the use of forearms, rackets, or bats. The ball was made of solid rubber and weighed as much as 4 kilograms / 9 pounds.
It is also the case that some ballcourts do not have rings at all but point markers, as is the case with Copán’s famous ballcourt, featuring six stone macaw heads, three on each side.
Similarly, the main ballcourt at Tonina features six serpent heads, again with three on each side.
Mesoamerican ballcourts also show a high amount of regional and cultural variation when it comes to their overall design, with, for example, ballcourts in the mountains of Guatemala and Central Mexico tending to be sunken.
Mesoamerican ball courts have been found as far north as Arizona (arguably) and as far south as Nicaragua. Over the past few decades, the Pok ta Pok has become a popular tourist spectacle, but the ceremony is still practiced by a handful of communities in Mexico, including the Ulama of Sinaloa.
Though the Mesoamerican ballgame clearly was ritualistic, textual evidence from Mixteca codices suggests that it was also played for recreation — without the decapitations, of course.
In Yucatán, there have been a handful of attempts to revitalize the ancient ceremony by holding tournaments with teams from multiple communities and even a Pok ta Pok world cup, which was last won by the team representing Belize.