An international team of archaeologists has found three ancient leather balls in tombs of the prehistoric Yanghai cemetery near the modern city of Turfan in northwest China.
The ancient balls from Turfan are small, measuring between 7.4 and 9.2 cm (2.9-3.6 inches) in diameter.
The artifacts have a core of pieces of leather or hair and are enclosed in a leather case tied together with a band. Two of them are marked with a red cross on the outer leather cover.
Such balls could be used for ball games, although at the moment archaeologists cannot say what kind of game it was.
The Turfan balls were radiocarbon dated to the time interval between 1189 and 911 BCE.
They predate other currently known antique balls and images of ball games in Eurasia by several centuries.
Polo scene from the tomb of Li Yong, Fuping county, Shaanxi province, China. Image credit: P. Wertmann.
“This makes these balls about 500 years older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia,” said Dr. Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist in the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich.
“Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”
Two of the three balls were found in the burials of the possible horse riders.
Given that ball games from ancient times were considered an excellent form of physical exercise and military training, Dr. Wertmann and colleagues suggest that balls — and ball games — appeared in the region at the same time as horseback riding.
“The earliest illustrations from Greece show ball players and depictions from China show horse riders with sticks,” they said.
“Similar curved sticks were also found at the Yanghai site, but there was no apparent direct connection with the balls.”
Pictorial bricks from an Eastern Han dynasty tomb close to Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, China. Image credit: Li & Zheng.
“Therefore, the leather balls from Turfan are not connected to early forms of field hockey or polo, even though two of the balls were found in the graves of horsemen,” Dr. Wertmann said.
The discovery is reported in a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Patrick Wertmann et al. New evidence for ball games in Eurasia from ca. 3000-year-old Yanghai tombs in the Turfan depression of Northwest China. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, published online October 1, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102576