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Anthropology student hopes to recreate ancient ball court

STANFORD -- If Benjamin Rigby has his way, Stanford University's basketball, tennis and racquetball courts soon may be joined by the granddaddy of them all - a Mesoamerican ball court.

A Mesoamerican ball court?

The idea began bouncing around in the Stanford sophomore's head while he was reading a book on Mayan history. The book contained a chapter on the rubber ball games that the ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America began playing nearly 4,000 years ago.

"I remembered seeing the courts on a yearlong journey around the world after high school," said Rigby, who is majoring in anthropology. "I thought, 'Wow, what a cool game. I wish I could play it.' And then it struck me: Why not build a court?"

Rigby took his idea to several campus administrators, to Stanford anthropologist James Fox, and to his fellow residents at Casa Zapata, the university's Mexican-American theme house.

With their support, he began more than a month of research, combing through archeological records and history books.

More than just a game

Ancient Mesoamerican ball games were not just for fun, Rigby discovered. Rulers played as part of a public ritual, and nobles used the game as a political stepping stone.

Winners grew in prestige, power and wealth; losers sometimes were sacrificed to the gods and their heads used as balls.

"The game also became a substitute for war, thus reducing bloodshed and violence," Rigby said. "It is said that, on several occasions, rulers wagered their entire empires on the outcome of a game."

In 1528, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes took a team of ballplayers back to Spain to perform in the royal court. The game so intrigued Europeans - who had been using leather and wooden balls - that they quickly adapted it to their preferences.

Today, Rigby said, "We can see its eventual adaptation in basketball, soccer and tennis, to name a few sports."

Details to development

Rigby picked out a possible location for his court near Casa Zapata, on the field between Wilbur and Stern dormitories, and came up with a conceptual drawing by copying and reducing the dimensions of the court at Copan, Honduras.

The finished Stanford court would consist of two parallel wooden "walls" sloping down to a 50-foot-long grass alley. Players would stand in the alley and bounce a rubber ball against the walls, following ancient rules printed on the side of the court.

Stanford's Facilities Office assisted Rigby with preliminary sketches and cost estimates for the structure, and Casa Zapata Resident Fellow Antonio Burciaga said he could paint a mural on the side of the court, similar to those he has painted at the theme house.

Rigby also has received moral support from Lynn Glick of Housing and Food Services, and from Art Department curator Ruth Franklin, who said she may feature the court in an exhibit marking the 1994 World Cup Soccer matches at Stanford.

The main obstacle now is meeting the estimated $20,000 cost of the project. Rigby has contacted five foundations and the Athletics Department about funding, but so far he hasn't heard back. (Stanford's Development Office however, has told Rigby that it will accept individual contributions earmarked for the court.)

If the Mesoamerican ball court is built, it will be the first ever constructed in the United States and, to Rigby's knowledge, the first constructed anywhere in hundreds of years. It also will be an unusual, hands-on learning tool.

"I'm into alternative methods of learning, independent of the classroom," he said. "I hope that local elementary school, high school and Stanford students will have the opportunity to play and watch the ball game [and] that the court will spark interest in the history of the Mesoamerican peoples and their influence upon the present."

And, no, he promised - losing teams will not be sacrificed.



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