On September 25, 2017, the world learned that two stone panels inscribed with ancient Maya hieroglyphs have been deciphered. The two stone panels were discovered at the Tipan Chen Uitz site in Belize and depict ancient Maya playing the ubiquitous ballgame sometimes known as ulama or simply as the “Maya ball game.”
Played in large courts with sloping walls and a large stone ring, the ancient ball game was considered both a sporting as well as a religious event by the Maya. Similar to modern racquetball, teams of 2-6 players would compete to keep a large rubber ball (up to 9 lbs/4kg) in play without using their hands.
Archeologists believe that the stone tablets unearthed at Tipan Chen Uitz date from around 700 AD during the heyday of the ancient Maya culture. The first tablet shows a ballplayer wearing a traditional protective belt, hitting a large, round ball. However, what makes this carving unusual is that the player is holding what appears to be a fan in his left hand.
As one of the largest carvings of a Maya ballplayer ever discovered, the engraving of the player measures about five feet wide and 28 inches high. A combination of aging and ancient vandalism has somewhat obscured the image, but archeologists have managed to decipher a nearby hieroglyph that states, “nine hand-span ball,” referring to the size of the enormous rubber ball used in the game. Next to that is the player’s name or nickname, “Waterscroll Ocelot.” The other panel depicts a second ballplayer, but, unfortunately, his name and face were scratched out by ancient vandals.
Mesoamerican ball game court in Monte Alban (CC BY 2.0)
Thousands of ball courts have been discovered throughout Central America, and it is clear that it was a popular event for the ancient Maya, Aztecs, and Olmec civilizations. While no one is quite sure what name the Maya gave for this game, or even exactly how it was played, all ancient Maya cities have one or more ball courts located in prominent positions next to temples and pyramids. A modern variant called ulama is still played by some indigenous communities in Mexico and Belize. It is believed that the ancient ballgame is the oldest known instance of an organized sport involving round balls.
Located in the beautiful Placencia Peninsula in southern Belize, Chabil Mar resort offers guests Belize jungle and sea packages that include tours to all of the top ancient Maya sites, including vast cities where visitors can learn about the ancient Maya culture and see things such as ball courts, engravings, carved monuments, palaces, pyramids, and hieroglyphs.