Monday, August 22, 2016

Ritualized Ball Games in the Neolithic? (or venationes, Michael Bott)

Here's a theory from Micheal Bott suggesting that some of the circular monuments of Atlantic Europe may be sporting monuments where important, possibly even religious, ball games or venationes took place.  Before you dismiss this possibility, listen to his argument and then consider a few examples from other primitive religions below.

Thanks to Charles for linking the short clip below:

Henges: Stonehenge, Woodhenge, Avebury & Stanton Drew from Michael Bott on Vimeo.

Bott suggests that some of the henges could be the structural precursors to a number of ancient venues, using as a loose example the Amphitheatrum Flavium, itself having a recent architectural lineage by way of Classical Greece.  At 4:22 he compares the structure of Stanton Drew with the substructure of the Flavian Amphitheater, suggesting that the close timbers may have been piers for decking. 

It's possible that when large numbers of people converged on a single site like Stonehenge that the archaeological indication of multi-day feasting could have been a sort of religious sports-orgy, such as those of a number of ancient cultures.  Lacking satisfyingly abundant sacrificial or burial remains, some round monuments are often called calendars or observatories; but that still doesn't tell us procedurally 'what actually happened' when the monuments were being used.  Bott wonders if the 'what actually happened' were blood-sports, such as those of the Roman Era.

Since many of the Atlantic monuments seem to be oriented around the sun [recent article], we might want to consider activities that would be becoming of a proper sun worshiper.  So here I've considered two very different cultures a world away just to give an example of what kind of worship might be pleasing to a solar deity of the Beaker Age.  (not suggesting any relationship with the following)

Woodland Lacrosse "The Warrior's Game" by Robert Griffing [here]
There is lacrosse, a modern North American game with origins in the Eastern Woodland Nations.  A reconstructed view of the stick-and-ball mythology is a battle among primordial beings (either between gods or a contest between animals and ancestral humans) for the sun and moon, the volley representing this struggle of dominance of the two celestial spheres.  Although played for a number of occasions, it is possible that important games were played either in the Winter Solstice or quarterly.  The word "game" is almost a misapplication in that it trivializes a sacramental event that was played with rackets consecrated by a holy man.  [USAlacrosse], (Vennum, 2004)

Another solar game is Meso-American handball, which probably descended from the same ancestor as the Woodland ball games.  The rubber ball comes to represent a living version of the sun in a cosmic battle that took place before the time of men.  The stone scoring ring, as seen below, represents the equinox through which the sun passes.

The ball court itself, the tlachtli, is more than just a sports stadium.  It is a solar portal oriented with the sky that literally transports the players into the cosmological realm.  It is here that the death and re-birth of the sun is re-enacted and the fertility of a nation can be ensured through the sacrifice of players.

Whether lacrosse or ullamaliztili, these were formalized, high-stakes events, not only for the players but for the treaties and wagers made on the game.  In the case of ullamaliztili, the sanctioned games by the Classical Period appear to have ended with the beheading of losing team captain and often, the entire losing team.  Also [here]

"ullamaliztli" - The ball "sun" spiked through the stone ring "the equinox"
There is an extremely rich array of ancient European ball games, combat sports, venationes and competitions.  Many of our seemingly modern sports belong to categories of sports that can be traced fairly well into the Early Bronze Age.   

These European competitions were often religious in nature; and that begs the question:  if we reasonably assume that sport events were one of the most central pillars in the life of a Neolithic European, shouldn't we see some evidence of this in the landscape?  No one is suggesting that this is going to be the case, but if we look at monuments again, could they be?

Michael Bott considers round monuments with embankments.  He wonders if the ditched embankment enclosures were designed for venationes, such as a bull ring, or a rodeo ring.  It's worth considering that European stick-and-ball games typically have round courts or infields as well.  In the English language, boxers fight in a boxing 'ring', even though modern rings are square.  Most European combat sports are now, or were at one time, fought in a circular enclosure.

There are also other unusual structures found in Europe, such as the cursuses and holed-stones
Of course there may be better explanations for some of these, but if we had a number of Neolithic monuments, let's say a thousand, there should be a high logical probability that a certain percentage had events taking place that spectators might actually want to watch!


Here is an interesting bit of information about Stonehenge...  There are now about a hundred and fifty images discovered on the Stonehenge sarsen stones from the second millennium.  What are they?  deer?  stick people?  boats?  cows?

Unless there are images that I've missed, all of them are axes and daggers.

...and they continue to be found.  These are just the ones that haven't faded or remain to be discovered.  What's interesting is how the daggers and axes are sequentially listed on the sarsen stones, much like a tally.

Papi Boyington, American Ace pilot

More on the Roman coliseum   [Link]


  1. I wonder if this idea might apply also to Gobekle Tepe. I think the old form of Sepak Takraw (kick volleyball) was played in a circle, now played on a rectangular court.

    1. For some reason sport appears incredibly neglected by archaeology, even though it has been one of the most central aspects to the lives of modern humans since forever.

  2. "Another solar game is Meso-American handball, which probably descended from the same ancestor as the Woodland ball games."

    Interesting hypothesis. Is there any support for it?

    1. I believe this is hypothesized based on some commonalities between the two. I'll have to find who actually put this forth.

      There seems to be a struggle between day and night in the two games and, although I don't know the full extent of similar ball games across North America, many of the nations with a ball games history seem to develop out of the Mississippian Cultures that may have had substantial contact or influence coming from Meso-America.

    2. Just wanted to point out, you called it a type of handball but actually the use of hands was not allowed. I was taught they hit the ball with only their hips, but the britannica article you linked-to mentions they also used knees and elbows. Can you imagine your life depending on knocking a ball through a 20 ft high circle using only your hip, knee or elbow?

    3. Just saw your comment like two months later. You're correct for the classical period. However, it varied from town to town and depending on the ages of the players from what I understand. Some of the games were also played with rackets or sticks originally.

  3. This discussion of sports made me just look up something that I've seen online before about "Neolithic carved stone balls." Somebody put allot of effort into carving them and they are all of a rather uniform size indicating a similar and widespread usage. You are probably not going to spend so much time carving a stone ball if you are just going to use it to hunt or in warfare. They must have been used in some sort of sport. This video says they were found mostly around the stone circles. And maybe one was found in Tiwanaku?

    1. They could be lawn bowls since their shape would cause an erratic stop at the jack. Plus bowls is native to the island.


    Here is a neolithic circle in Germany. Apparently, there were some children and young women who were buried there who had injuries:

    Beneath the crumbling wooden layers lay the skeletons of children and young women whose injuries suggest an untimely end, according to an interview the archaeologist Dr. Andre Spietzer gave to the tourism office of Saxony-Anhalt, where the site is located.

  5. Interesting idea.

    Ancient Egyptians had hockey apparently

    and there's an ethiopian version called “Ye-Gena Chewata” which is only played at xmas which may tie in to the ritual aspect