Littlefield: Digging Into Sport's Past In Mexico City

A Mayan sculpture at the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Yucatan Peninsula (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images).
A Mayan sculpture at the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Yucatan Peninsula (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images).

They are digging again in Mexico City, and the “again” is misleading, because they always seem to be digging there. This is in part because even in the center of the city, there is a lot to find when they dig around near the cathedral and the military barracks and the pawn shops that form the Zocalo, which is the city’s main square. It was once a main square of a different sort: the sort characterized by pyramids and sacred spaces and, as revealed by the recent digging, a ball court.

And not just any ball court, like, say the one in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula, which features skulls carved into the walls that form its boundaries. This one they’ve uncovered in Mexico City goes one better than carved skulls. It is beside a huge temple, also long-buried, and the temple was dedicated to the Aztec god of the wind. Perhaps it still is. The top of the temple is shaped like a snake, and the theory is that priests would enter the temple through the serpent’s nose, which must have made for an impressive pre-game ceremony.

Among the discoveries at the site of the ball court were 32 severed male neck vertebrae.

They are not the neck bones of fellows who died of old age or maybe drank too much and fell off the porch. Or the pyramid.

Various people have put forward various theories about the games that were played on these ball courts, only one of which I’ve seen. The court. Not the game. Nobody has seen any of those games since the Spanish stepped into the mix in what used to be Tenochtitlan and is now Mexico City. The ball court I saw is at a site called Chichen Itza. The interior walls of the court there have stone rings attached to them, which suggests that part of the game that was played there required the players to toss or whack a ball through the rings. If anybody ever discovered any neck bones there, I didn’t hear about it.

I walked the length of the ball court, and I put my hands on the rings and the carved skulls, which I’m pretty sure you can’t do anymore at Chichen Itza, which is easier to get to than it used to be.

There are various theories about who lost their heads before or after the games at ball courts like the one under the street near the Zocalo. Maybe the heads belonged to slaves, and they were luckless sacrifices, ignorant of what it was all for, and they were killed before the games began. But maybe it was half the players. Maybe the guys who lost the game subsequently lost their heads as the crowd shouted whatever it was that crowds shouted in that sacred place in that long ago time.

In Mexico, they’ll keep digging. And as the rest of us concern ourselves with today’s game and tomorrow’s, they’ll find out more about yesterday’s.


Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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