The Great Ballcourt

The Copan Ballcourt, with the Hieroglyphic Stairway (shrouded by its protective canopy) in the background.

The Great Ballcourt was the last major building project of 18-Rabbit, the 13th ruler of Copan. It was dedicated in 738 A.D., shortly before he was captured and sacrificed by Cauac Sky of Quirigua.

"Besides Structure 10L-22, the best-known and preserved architectural monument of Ruler 13's reign is the final Ballcourt A-III.

It is a very large and imposing edifice, in size second only to the Great Court at Chichén Itza. Ballcourt A-III is certainly one of the most elaborately embellished of its kind ever created, with sculpture decorating the floor of the playing alley where the players moved about, the inclined benches upon which the ball was bounced, and in profusion on the four façades of the two temples built up and away from the field of play."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 125


"The Copán Mosaics Project began its work in 1985 with the task of re-articulating, conserving, and studying the mosaic sculptures of Ballcourt A-III.

The façade fragments were excavated by Derek Nusbaum and Gustav Stromsvik of the Carnegie Institution and carefully stacked in four discrete piles in the immediate confines of the ballcourt.

There were more than 1200 ballcourt pieces, falling into a series of discrete motif categories: scarlet macaw body parts, feathered collars, akbal (darkness) signs, maize and vegetation, and vertically-tenoned 'bony ahau' pieces.

After calculating the minimum number of individual figures, and much patient experimenting and re-evaluating, Barbara Fash devised reconstructions for 16 ballcourt birds.

Work with the wedge-shaped tenons of the pieces demonstrated to her that four of the birds on each building were placed on the corners, thus leaving the other four to be placed on the columns between the doorways on the east and west sides of each of the two structures.

The birds are each composed of a head with open beak surrounded by a beaded collar, left and right talons placed below the collar, wings -- complete with the serpent-head symbol that is placed on bird wings in Maya art -- which extend horizontally from the sides of the collar and body, an elaborate tail assemblage including the akbal symbol, and a cascade of tail feathers bifurcating and then extending symmetrically in two courses to the left and right of the central tail assemblage.

A composite example combining the best-preserved examples of all these motifs into a single bird has been restored and placed on the eastern structure of the ballcourt, facing the playing alley, so that the visitor to Copán can get an idea of how the sculptured façade looked in its original state."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 126


Detail of a macaw from the reconstructed ballcourt temple in the Copan Sculpture Museum.




"The inclined benches each had a raised surface running transversely through their central axes, inscribed with hieroglyphic text.

The inscription cites the commemoration date of the building ( 10 Ben 16 Kayab, or 10 January AD 738), a few months before the death of this distinguished ruler.

At the tops of the benches there were vertically-tenoned macaw heads, one along the central axis and one at each end of both buildings.

These are also called 'markers', though their actual function during the game is not yet resolved.

Earlier versions of the ballcourt also had playing-alley floor markers and vertically-tenoned macaw-head bench markers, indicating a continuity in decoration during the ballcourt's c. 400 years of use."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 125-6


Great Plaza

A macaw head bench marker from the Copan Sculpture Museum.

This marker, in an antique style distinct from the markers currently seen in the ballcourt, comes from the earlier version of the Ballcourt (A-II) before it was rebuilt by 18-Rabbit.

Schele, Freidel & Parker note that "Bench markers in the form of macaw heads from at least three of the earlier stages of the Ballcourt were deposited as offerings in and around the Hieroglyphic Stairs.

Knowing as we do that the Maya put things into the construction fill of pyramids as part of their ensouling, the Hieroglyphic Stairs held part of the soul essence of its companion Ballcourt."

Schele, Freidel & Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, p. 364-5

Great Plaza

Entrance to the Ruins

A colony of gorgeous macaws lives at the entrance of the site, a reminder of the importance of the macaw in the imagry of ancient Copán. The name of the founder of the Copán dynasty, Yax Kuk Mo', translates as Green Quetzal Macaw.

The macaw also has mythological significance in the Maya creation story. Vucub Caquix ["Seven Macaw"] pretended to be the sun during the early history of creation in the Pupol Vuh, and is known as the Principal Bird Deity or the Celestial Bird by modern students of Maya iconography.


"It has long been thought that the main religious connotations of the Mesoamerican ballgame were the perpetuation of natural cycles such as the movements of the sun and of other celestial bodies, and of the transition of the seasons and of fertility.

At Copán, the vegetation scrolls found on the roof drains of the ballcourt, and the maize vegetation motif repeated 32 time of the façades of the two buildings, clearly refer to the fertility cult.

When the king or his representatives defeated the forces of disease, drought, and death -- symbolized in the costumes of the members of the opposing team -- he succeeded in ensuring that the sun would once again continue to rise triumphant in the east and that the rains would be plentiful and arrive on time.

There is abundant evidence from other Classic Maya sites that losers in the ballgame were sacrificed, and it is entirely possible that in his day Ruler 13 himself dispatched a few vanquished players.

On one altar, and on a small stone cylinder now on display in the Copán Museum, Ruler 13 also cites the captures made in war against some smaller sites in the region.

Indeed, Linda Schele believes that he was in pursuit of captives for the dedication of his new ballcourt when he was himself captured, and subsequently beheaded on 3 May AD 738 by the ruler Cauac Sky from the site of Quiriguá.

The question of how this long-lived and distinguished Copán dynast was killed by a rival from a much smaller kingdom has perplexed scholars for some time. "

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 126-29