Cylindrical vessel with ball game scene

682–701 CE
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General Description

In their royal courts, the Maya served beverages made from corn or chocolate in cylindrical ceramic vessels. The hieroglyphic texts on this vessel indicate that it was used for a drink made from sweet cacao pulp. The texts also name two rulers who were associated with kingdoms in what is today the Petén region of Guatemala. The painted scene depicts a Maya game played in a masonry court with a solid rubber ball the size and weight of a bowling ball. Rules required that players hit the ball primarily with their hips, not their hands. In the scene on this vessel, the player on his knees is trying to hit the ball back into play with the big padded belt around his waist. Distinguished by water lily, deer, and bird headdresses, each of the four players wears a hip protector, a hide apron, a padded guard on one forearm, and a knee pad on one knee, all for protection from the blows of the ball during play. We have few eyewitness accounts of the Maya game, which was still played in the highlands of Guatemala when the Spanish arrived, and for that reason, we know little of the rules for scoring and winning. We presume from the sheer number of ball courts in Maya cities that the Maya played the sport on many occasions and that most Maya played or watched the game. However, for the Maya of the Classic period, the ball game was a deeply sacred ritual, and not only a popular sport but a political event that had many levels of meaning and often involved human sacrifice. Significantly, there is no warfare or sacrifice depicted on the vessel.

The hieroglyphic text reveals the vessel is from Hix Witz (Jaguar Hill) and its owner was Spark Mouth K’awil, a “young warrior from Hix-wits.” Hix Witz was centered on the sites of Pajaral, Zapote Bobal, and the smaller La Joyanca in the Petén department of Guatemala.[1] According to archaeologist and epigrapher David Stuart, these sites shared the Hix Witz toponym. In a situation analogous to the sites of Dos Pilas and Aguateca, local power and ritual importance may have shifted back and forth between the two larger centers over time. A caption in the vertical column refers to another royal person, probably one of the ball players: “this is his self (image) in the ball game, strong youth, Sak Muwaan (white bird), holy (divine) king of Ik’ (Motul de San José).” Motul de San José was an ancient Maya site located just north of Lake Petén Itzá in the Petén Basin region of the southern Maya lowlands. It can be supposed that the vessel was dedicated to commemorate Sak Muwaan’s visit to Hixwits or the game played by that “young warrior” in the court of the king of Motul de San José (Ik’). Because the text names two rulers and two kingdoms, this scene may represent an inter-kingdom contest and a reenactment of the primordial ball game. The ball game was often a reenactment of this mythical ball game in which the Hero Twins played ball against the lords of the underworld, and it was ultimately a metaphor for life, death, and regeneration.

[1] Hix Witz is alternatively spelled Hix Wits, Hiix Witz and Hixwitz.

Elaine Higgins Smith, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2016.

Drawn From

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Cylindrical vessel with ball game scene (1983.148)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 46.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • Dorie Reents-Budet, Painting the Maya universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period (Durham and London: Duke University Press in association with Duke University Museum of Art, 1994): 264.

  • Maya Vase Database, "Kerr Number: 2803," 2015,;_search=&vase;_number=&date;_added=&ms;_number=&site;=&icon;_elements%5B%5D=Ball+or+ballgame&x;=0&y;=0 (February 25, 2015).

  • Mesoweb Encyclopedia, "Hix Witz," Mesoweb, 2015,;=http%3A// (February 25, 2015).

Fun Facts

  • Located just above the man with the deer-head headdress is the glyph for cacao, which we know as chocolate, an important food that originated in the Americas. The Maya used the pulp that surrounds the cacao seeds in the pod to make a beverage. They also roasted and ground the cacao seeds, which they mixed with water, ground corn, and flavorings like chili and honey to produce a beverage for the elite. A head of foam, or froth, on the Maya chocolate drink was created by pouring the chocolate-based beverage back and forth between two cylindrical vessels like this one. They drank the chocolate beverage from smaller ceramic vessels or from gourd containers. Maya kings sometimes presented ceramic vessels as gifts to other rulers or important nobles. Since the cacao glyph is present on this vessel, this indicates that it was used to hold a cacao beverage.

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video about the Mesoamerican Ballgame and a Classic Veracruz yoke, with Dr. Rex Koontz and Dr. Steven Zucker.