Older than oldest balls of Eurasia: Leather balls in Ancient Chinese Graves leave researchers puzzled

Older than oldest balls of Eurasia: Leather balls in Ancient Chinese Graves leave researchers puzzled
Photo: X.Y. Chen and P. Wertmann / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It should not come as a surprise to us that people from ancient china also tried to have some fun or exercise using leather balls.

Currently, countries across the world have their own version of games that use leather balls as their main instrument of play. Be it handball, baseball or cricket they all use leather balls.

A team of researchers from the University of Zurich has discovered three leather balls in ancient Chinese graves. The graves are believed to be of Warriors or horsemen and researchers are estimating them to be about 2,900 to 3,200 years old.

Among the three balls, two balls which are still intact are about 7.5 and 9 centimeters in diameter. The discovery was made in Yanghai ancient cemetery in North-western China.

The fresh pieces of evidence led researchers to observe that balls, made of sheepskin and leather, were used in military training. They also speculated that the players used sticks to play with them like contemporary games we play of polo or hockey. Although concrete evidence indicating the exact nature of the game and its purpose are yet to be established.

A wall painting, found in another grave, depicts players on horsebacks engaged in a game that appears similar to current day hockey.

The balls found are believed to older than the oldest balls in Eurasia known to the researchers. As Patrick Wertmann from the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich, says, “This makes these balls about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia. Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”

At Yanghai, the discovery of curved sticks has also been made but they are believed to be of recent origin than the balls and their exact use has not been ascertained as well.

Along with these sticks and balls, a pair of trousers and a bow has also been discovered during the excavation. According to the researchers, they indicate a shift in lifestyle among the people according to climate change and increase in contact among different regions of central Asia.

Among the three graves where the balls were found, researchers were able to ascertain the identity of those buried in the graves using their clothes and other objects that were buried with them.

The first grave, IM157, which was the resting place of a forty-year-old man who was wearing a leather coat and boots, and woollen trousers, is believed to be an archer. He also wore a necklace made of bones and turquoise beads.

The second grave marked IM209, of a young man aged between 20-25 years only had his skull and lower limbs; the grave is suspected of being robbed by looters leaving nothing valuable behind except the ball.

The third grave, IM214, was missing the person’s skull and only had his skeletal remains. The person believed to have two tattoos on his one hand and had some of his earthly possessions with his in the grave like his boots, braided plaits of hair and his ball.