Scribes, Warriors And Kings; & The Mesoamerican Ballgame

Norman Hammond | Published in History Today

Scribes, Warriors And Kings: The City Of Copan And The Ancient Maya

William L Fash - Thames & Hudson, 1991 - 192 pp.

The Mesoamerican Ballgame

Vernon L Scarborough and David R. Wilcox (Eds) - University of Arizona Press, 1991 - 420 pp.

The ancient Maya have recently moved from prehistory into history: the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing has led to the identification of dynasties of rulers at sites such as Tikal, Palenque, and Yaxchilan, and to an understanding of how they interacted. Royal marriages, border raids, meetings between allies and the occasional earthshaking capture and sacrifice of a rival monarch are all recorded in the texts of the monuments which Maya kings erected to themselves and the glory of their ancestors.

Maya epigraphers and Maya archaeologists tend to be different breeds, however, with few of those expert in one area of the discipline being equally competent, or even equally interested, in the other. Fash's book is a strikingly successful attempt to bring the two sides together, and to show how much more the whole is than the sum of its parts.

Copan is one of the jewels of the Maya world: first noted in 1576 by Diego Garcia de Palacio in a letter to Philip II of Spain, the stunning ruins in the hills of Honduras made a great impression nearly three centuries later on John Lloyd Stephens, the godfather of Maya studies: '...all the arts which embellish life had flourished in this overgrown forest, orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory, had lived and passed away, and none knew that such things had been, or could tell of their past existence... all was mystery; dark, impenetrable mystery'. Stephens, however, made several astute deductions from the magnificent architecture and sculpture and the unreadable texts on the soaring stelae of Copan, among them that the figures were of 'deified kings'. What he surmised in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Cbiapas, and Yucatan a century and a half ago, William Fash now shows to have been dramatically true.

Fifteen years of intensive research by Gordon Willey and his students (of whom Fash was one), by Claude Baudez of the French CNRS and William Sanders and David Webster of Penn State, have shown us Copan as a city-state of the Maya Classic period, flourishing from the fourth to the ninth century AD. At the same time, epigraphic studies by Nikolai Grube, Berthold Riese, Linda Schele, and David Stuart unlocked the history of Copan, documenting a dynasty of sixteen rulers who ruled the valley from before AD 426 to 820. Yax K'uk Mo', founder of the dynasty, Butz' Chan (reigned 578-628), 'Smoke-Imix God-K' who reigned for sixty-seven years between 628 and 695 (longer than Queen Victoria), and the ill-fated Uaxac Lahun Ubac C'awil, whose capture by Cauac Sky of Quirigua shook the Copanec kingdom to its core, now stand before us as well-documented as many lesser princelings in Old World history.

Fash himself has led the Copan Mosaics Project, a heroic attempt to unscramble the piles of fallen sculpture from public buildings that cover the acropolis and plazas of the site centre. Together with his wife, Barbara Fash, he has managed to restore, both on paper and in actuality, some of the crucial structures of seventh and eighth century Copan, including the popol na or 'Mat House', a council chamber decorated with sculptures marking the constituent communities of the kingdom. Interpretation of these images has led to a new understanding of how royal power was ceded to nobles in the mid-eighth century as the Maya kingdoms balkanised in the face of a deteriorating environment and the pressures of population overshoot. One of the great merits of Fash's book is that he draws together economic, iconographic and epigraphic evidence to portray Copan as an exemplar of the Maya state.

One of Copan's most famous monuments is its central ball-court, where the sacred ball-game pok-ta-pok was played for stakes that may well have included the lives of the losers. The Copan Mosaics Project has succeeded in reconstructing the spread-winged macaws that adorned the upper buildings overlooking the playing alley, and the carved markers can be shown to include portraits of Copanec kings chancing their heads and hearts against the lords of the underworld.

Exactly how the Maya ball-game functioned, as sport and as ritual, has long fascinated scholars, and two recent international conferences have gone some way to resolving the problem. That held in Tucson in 1985 has yielded the volume reviewed here (the other, in Leiden in 1988, resulted in a book of the same title edited by Gerard W. van Bussel and others, and published in English by the Rijksmuseum voor Volenkunde, in 1991). Scarborough and Wilcox's collection includes fifteen of the twenty- four papers originally given, of which six are on the non-Maya ballgame of northern Mesoamerica, from the tlacho of Jalisco and the simple courts of the Hohokam in Arizona, to the complex architecture of the Zapotec and Mixtec ballcourts in Oaxaca. A surprising omission is the Aztec ballgame, the variant for which we have the most detailed and precise historical evidence: while H.B. Nicholson chose not to publish his conference paper, the editors could and should have provided some coverage in an introduction or concluding synthesis.

Nine of the remaining ten papers focus on the Maya ball-game, the variant for which we have the greatest amount of coeval iconographical data. Several of these are, like the earlier chapters, concerned with typology and architectural detail. The first Maya lowland ball-courts appear in the Late Pre-classic period (400 BC-AD 250), slightly later than their Middle Preclassic neighbours in southern Chiapas where the courts at Finca Acapulco, El Vergel and San Mateo in the upper Grijalva valley date to around 500 BC and are among the oldest in Mesoamerica.

The lowland courts attained a degree of architectural elaboration not seen elsewhere, however, and were usually located close to the centres of the ceremonial precincts of major communities: the socio-political role of the ballgame in mediating stresses within the fabric of a rapidly urbanising Classic Maya society in the period between AD 600 and 850 has been under-investigated until now. A game that had begun as a reflection of seasonal cycles and the daily and yearly need to foster the sun and the rains became arrogated to the maintenance of dynastic pride and authority, as the ruler emerged as the sacred conduit between his people and the celestial and chthonic forces of nature.

The Tucson and Leiden symposium volumes show a new awareness of the complex nature of the Mesoamerican ballgame, and Fash's work at Copan provides an excellent case study in how its ritual architecture both embodies and illuminates the salient role that the game played in Maya civilisation.

Norman Hammond is the author of Ancient Maya Civilisation (Rutgers University Press, 1982).

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