Most of the ruins have little signage in Spanish, almost none in English, and the bulk of what you can find out about the site is either within the on-site museum, if there is one, or from people who present themselves as guides. Most of them do not speak English. Our guide in Palenque was not only a fluent English speaker, he had interesting ways of presenting the material to make the memory of it stick and to prompt more questions. He gave the best explanation of how the Mayan world fell apart around the year 900 AD that I've ever heard. It included political, religious, and environmental problems, the most pressing of which were overpopulation (resulting in environmental degradation and starvation) and consequent lack of control by the governors. Royalty were considered Gods, and were well educated in poetry, art, politics, religion, literature and astronomy, but they couldn't seem to get a handle on the problems besetting the city-states. Sound familiar? Unfortunately our guide didn't seem to know a lot about the ball game.
You see, nobody really knows what the rules were, or who exactly lost their heads at the end. Some say the winner was sacrificed, others say the loser. Some say the ball game was between two individuals, and others say as many as six were on opposing teams. All the ballcourts had several things in common. The shape from above looks like the capital I with a narrow section down the middle, flanked by steep walls with stone figures sticking out as goal posts, some posts have holes presumably for the hard rubber ball to pass through. At the end is stadium seating for spectators. The whole court is sunk about 10 to 15 feet into the ground. At various museums you can see the stone U-shaped device the players wore on one hip, used to whack the ball, much like soccer players do with their torsos. Only this ball was solid rubber and quite heavy. They could also hit the ball with padded forearms and stone paddles carved into the shape of a face in profile. We saw two paddles in the anthropology museum in Tuxtla Gutierrez.
I promised to find out more about the ball game for the people on the tour. I wrote to an archeologist friend, Dr. Jason Shapiro, and asked him who got sacrificed, the winner or the loser? This is what he had to say (edited a bit for brevity).
First of all, never ask an archeologist a simple question!!
The ball game was a ceremonial game (or games) and not a sport the way we think of sports, played in different styles of ballcourts and with different rules that varied by both place and time. The oldest potential ballcourt in Oaxaca may be six thousand years old. Typically, the result was preordained and what was presented was a kind of morality play: the classic struggle between forces of light and darkness, between good and evil. The extent of the ballgame is revealed in records from the Contact Period that indicate 16,000 rubber balls were provided annually as tribute from Gulf Coast communities to the Aztecs and other powerful states in Central Mexico.
The balls were made with a combination of raw latex combined with the juice from pulverized morning glory vines that grow with and wrap around rubber trees. The juice contains chemicals that elasticize the latex and turn it into actual rubber in a way not duplicated by western science and industry until the mid-19th century.
Although the ballgame represented a very strong and central ideological mechanism, do not discount the secular attributes associated with the game, including the reaffirmation of status and power and their attendant prerogatives, including the power to sacrifice. Over time, the ballgame became more politicized, at least in Central Mexico in terms of political competition between competing cities or states.
That's background, next something specifically about the Maya.
I'm assuming that you know something about the Popul Vuh. This comment talks about the ballcourt symbolism and the Popul vuh as a Mayan origin myth. Ballcourt symbolism is closely related to Maya creation mythology as recounted in the Popul Vuh, a 17th century transcription of a traditional Maya creation myth (with all attendant problems of post-conquest accounts). Traditional people do use the same disconnect that we have between myth and history, although there are still plenty of people who read the Bible as if it were the true history of real people and events.
Evidence of the original myth is found in the archaeological record as early as 400 BC. The story recounts the activities of two sets of twins during the Third Creation (we live in the fourth Creation). In the story, the first set of twins (the maize twins) were great ballplayers who irritated the Lords of Death, and had to undergo a series of trials. The twins lost, were killed, and buried below the floor of a mythic ballcourt, except for one twin's head that was hung on a tree as a warning to others.
As luck would have it, the daughter of a lord fell in love with the skull, managed to become pregnant with a second set of twins, outsmarted her father, and gave birth to the second set of twins - the hero twins, whose actions explain how the world came to be (or at least the Maya world). One of the things they did was to find their fathers' ballgame equipment, ultimately defeat the Lords of Death, retrieved their fathers from the Underworld, and then go about recreating the world. As part of that recreation, the original twins were paddled across the sky in a canoe to the cosmic turtle (identified as Orion's belt).
The god Chak opened the turtle's back with a lightening stone, which enabled the maize twins to grow and continue the creation of humanity. The crack in the turtle is the ballcourt, which is both the entry point to the underworld, and the arena where the Maya confront death, disease and war. The twins lost the original game and died for it, but were resurrected in order to create the world. Not surprisingly, the maize gods are associated with ballcourts and are worshipped there. The ballgame itself is the ultimate metaphor for life and death - a place where fate and chance are tempted. It was also a metaphor for war. This is the real message associated with Mayan ball court.
I will never look at a ballcourt the same way again. In fact, the way the "crack" runs down the middle, steeply rising on both sides, and the way it breaks at the ends to form a T shape is just how you might imagine a pierced turtle shell to break open.