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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Let’s talk about that ‘Mayan scoreboard’ found at Chichén Itzá

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
The stone disk found at Chichén Itzá’s Casa Colorada is being photographed extensively for preservation purposes. Photo: INAH

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.

A section of the Casa Colarada complex is undergoing extensive reconstruction. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Though researchers have a general idea of how the Mesoamerican ballgame/ceremony was performed, there are still many questions to be answered. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

A stone relief of a Mesoamerican ballgame found in Yaxchilán, Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Lintel 1 of Bonampak over the doorway of Room 1 depicts Lord Chaan Muwakn capturing an enemy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

The facade of La Casa Colorada in Chichén Itzá, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

Archaeologist at work in February 2023 on the eastern end of the Casa Colarada complex in which the stone disk was discovered. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.”

The grand ballcourt at Chichén Itzá is one of the 13 structures of its kind at the site, and the largest in Mesoamerica, measuring a stunning 96.5 meters long and 30 meters wide. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

Ballcourt at Xanila Park with a market in the center of the field. Located in the Caucel neighborhood of Mérida, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

A carved stone panel from Chichén Itzá’s grand ballcourt depicts a decapitated man on one knee with blood pouring from his neck in the form of serpents. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

A closeup of the right marker of the “hoop” of the grand ballcourt in Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Though these days, the ballcourt at Copan is seen as somewhat of an oddball, it is likely this alternative ballcourt design was not unique. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Similarly, the main ballcourt at Tonina features six serpent heads, again with three on each side. 

The grand Maya city of Tonina sits high in the mountains of Chiapas and is home to one of the largest architectural complexes in all Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

A ballcourt in Mixco Viejo sits in the mountains surrounding Guatemala City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

A particularly stunning Mesoamerican ballcourt in Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

A highly dramatized reenactment of the Pok ta Pok “game” in Xcaret, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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.

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