Several thousands of years ago, a Native American guy picked up a solid rubber ball and heaved it. It was very heavy and it bounced as if it had a life of its own. So much so, that it could rebound off the limestone wall of a ball court with enough force to cause serious injury, hence knee pads and protective gear were worn just as they are today. The game that evolved over parts of Central America and Mexico came about because the natives of the region invented two things of great importance to the modern world: team sports and rubber balls.
Among those Olmec, Aztec and Mayan peoples, ballgames were taken very seriously, as if they were a matter of life and death. Sometimes they were a matter of life and death, as losing players ended up as sacrifices to the gods. Like the corporate sports on TV today, they were heavy on spectacle. Unlike them, they were about more than just competitive prowess, sports betting and communal beer swilling. Destiny had a lot to do with it, as did the heavens and the earth. In fact, the Mesoamerican ballgame was really all about the destiny of men, gods and the cosmos played out on the ball courts that were essential fixtures of Mesoamerican cities. The items seen in The Mesoamerican Ballgame show at NOMA can only be comprehended with this in mind, as they are anthropological artifacts in the strict sense, often rather peculiar ones at that.
Rather than spectacular displays of gold, jewels or startling objets d'art, this is a show of missing links, enigmatic objects and fragmentary pieces of a yet unfinished puzzle. We know that the Mesoamerican peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras saw the ballgame as a ritual of paramount importance, yet how it was played and how it figured into their daily lives are issues that are still being deciphered. Most of what survives are not the items that were actually used, but rather stone or ceramic replicas. (Think of catchers' mitts cast in bronze.) Very few balls exist except as replicas, like the one held by the Mayan ball player, above. The surviving balls are what you might expect: thousands of years-old globs of expired rubber that hint at having once been round. Most of what we see are items such as the players' yoke-shaped hip guards, and their hachas and palmas -- the symbolically shaped solar plexus protectors that were worn with them. Mingled with carved stone or painted ceramic depictions of the game, they make for an oddly mysterious exhibition.
Still, every picture tells a story, even if they appear on items as seemingly utilitarian as the circular markers that were a fixture of the ball court. One beautifully carved stone disc, dated 591 A.D. in the numerals of the Mayan calendar, features an incised depiction of a ball player replete with a protective waist yoke, animal hide kilt and heavily padded arms. He also wears the ritual dress of the deity known as "God N," whose connection with water is suggested by the player's water lily head gear. (The water lily was valued for its psychoactive qualities used by shamans to travel to other worlds -- and if that sounds weird, bear in mind that the fleur de lis on the Saints helmet is a stylized lily.) God N himself appears carved into a larger-than-life ball next to the player.
A carved maize god incised into a hacha hints at the meaning of the mortal aspect of the game. It seems that maize -- corn -- was another Mesoamerican invention, a staple coaxed from tiny wild seeds into the more-substantial grain we know today over centuries of selective horticulture. Life depended on maize, which was cut down at its prime yet was reborn on a yearly basis. The sacrificial ball player replicated that role in the great ballgame of the gods, which sounds barbaric to us. Yet it is thought that early European carnivals featured similar human sacrifices as well, as the first carnival kings were reportedly executed at the stroke of midnight on Mardi Gras to ensure the success of the next harvest. (Later a boeuf gras, or fatted ox, was slaughtered instead, but it's still something to bear in mind at those king cake parties.) All in all, The Mesoamerican Ballgame makes for a curiously otherworldly, if sometimes oddly familiar, experience.