Spring 2018: By Alexandra Witze.
From the Olmec to the Maya to the Aztec, ballgames were one of the defining activities of Mesoamerican cultures. Beginning some time before 1200 B.C., competitors kicked and whacked rubber balls up and down a playing court. These ballgames were rich in symbolism—in some cases the gods were said to have played—and a powerful force that bound communities together. But it’s possible these games weren’t limited to Mesoamerica. Archaeologists have found more than 200 oval-shaped earthen depressions with embankments in central and southern Arizona that resemble the Mesoamerican ballcourts. These features date between roughly A.D. 750 and 1200 and are associated with the Hohokam culture.
Though archaeologists continue to debate their purpose, and ethnographic accounts are silent on this matter, most researchers now surmise that the Hohokam courts were used for ballgames, much as the Mesoamerican ones were, according to Henry Wallace, a senior research archaeologist with Desert Archaeology, Inc., in Tucson, Arizona. In doing so the courts played a major role in strengthening Hohokam identity and interactions among villages. “Whenever you have games, you have people coming together,” Wallace said. “It’s a great way of linking social groups.”
New research suggests that the Hohokam ballcourts could have spread as part of a burgeoning religious revitalization movement. Villagers may have picked up on the Mesoamerican style of playing and adapted it to their own purposes. In some locations, such as Pueblo Grande in Phoenix, Hohokam ballcourts are large, intact ovals surrounded by earthen embankments. In other places they have been eroded, buried, or otherwise destroyed. According to a database maintained by Andy Laurenzi at Archaeology Southwest in Tucson, there are at least 220 ballcourts at 181 sites across Arizona. Most sites have one ballcourt, although several have more than one, including the well-studied site of Snaketown along the Gila River, which has both a large and a small court.
Read More in our SPRING 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1. Browse Content of this Issue: Spring 2018.
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