Ancient Southwest Hohokam Ball Courts

The Hohokam settled in desert territory in present day Arizona 2,500 years ago, growing corn, beans, squash, cotton, putting 70,000 acres under cultivation in the desert, building a huge and sophisticated irrigation system that yielded 2 harvests a year.

Starting at 600 CE, the colonial period began in the ancient Southwest as extensive trade began with Mesoamerica to the south. Copper bells, Scarlet Macaws, pyrite mirrors, cacao beans, Mesoamerica religious ideas, construction techniques, social ideas entered the southwest. And one of the ideas was the ball game. The Hohokam began to build ball courts between 700-1100 CE across the Hohokam homeland over 22,000 square miles. So far, 220 of these ball courts at 181 sites have been found in the Hohokam area. Ball courts stretched from present day Flagstaff to northwestern Mexico border areas. There are courts near present day Phoenix and Tucson.

The game itself diverged from the Mesoamerican model right away. The Mesoamerican courts were built of stone and in an I-Shape. The Hohokam courts were round and oblong and constructed of dirt dug up to make 6 foot high walls, and nine feet deep. Some of these courts reached 250 feet in length and 100 feet wide. Some 500 Spectators sat on the dirt walls to  watch the game. A lack of stone in the desert would lead to the walls being made of dirt.

We know this much for certain. But mystery surrounds the game itself. We do not know the rules of the game. We do not know how many players on the team. We do not understand the relationship of the balls used to play the game to the game itself. In Mesoamerica, they used rubber balls to play the game with hoops on the side of the walls to score.. There are no hoops on the Hohokam courts. And only 2 rubber balls emanating from Mesoamerica have been found at these 220 ball courts.There are a larger number of stone balls. Heavy and unwieldy. What look like ball game paddles have been found made of stone, but they do not look sturdy enough to hit these very heavy stone balls. So even that part of the Hohokam game is a mystery.

Archaeologists theorize folks from a wide array of villages would gather at trade fairs and religious events and the ball game would be played at very complex courts for these occasions. There could have been local teams, and the sport would tie the villages together. Perhaps disputes would be resolved through the game. Pottery and other goods would be sold on market days tied to the games. Some of the courts have a ritual orientation, so perhaps the games were played on a ceremonial calendar.

Around 1100, ball courts were no longer built and ceremonial mounds replaced them. We do not know why. Perhaps a religious change.

I have seen reports of Hohokam ball player figurines and Hohokam ball player rock art but in the over 100 articles and research papers I studied for the article, no one has posted pictures of this art. And the figurines would tell us something about the game. Like the topic of the enigma of T-shaped doors in the ancient Southwest and Mexico, which was a huge phenomena, very little is really known for certain about the Hohokam ball courts and game, despite the 220 courts that have been found.

I have created a photo gallery for you on the fascinating archaeology of the ball game. And again, like the dearth of substantial research on the topic, even putting together a photo gallery as a task, was not easy.

Hohokam Ball Courts

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