Egyptologist Peter Piccione illuminates the religious significance of ancient baseball.
He splits his time between his College of Charleston classroom and the dusty, unexplored passageways of ancient Egyptian tombs – so it's tempting to describe Peter Piccione as the College's very own Indiana Jones. But if you really want to understand what draws Piccione to Egyptology, perhaps another fictional hero is more fitting: Sherlock Holmes.
"It's a detective game," says Piccione of an archeologist's work. Somehow, with nothing more than a few cryptic wall paintings, scattered textual evidence and shattered artifacts, hands-on historians like Piccione attempt to reconstruct a vibrant picture of daily life in an ancient world.
For Piccione, it's not enough to understand the "what," "where" and "how" of Egyptian history, but also the "why." One of Piccione's major research interests is ancient Egyptian sports and games. What he's discovered is that Egyptian society frequently blurred the line between the secular and the sacred, particularly with sports.
An excellent example is the ancient game of seker-hemat or "batting the ball." Dating back to 2400 B.C., this ball-and-stick game is the oldest known predecessor of modern baseball. In one wall relief, the Pharaoh Thutmose III is shown in his best baseball card pose, ready to smack some line drives to his attending priests.
The "what" of seker-hemat is fairly clear – its gameplay is strikingly similar to stickball or a game of "pepper" – but to understand the "why" of seker-hemat, Piccione had to piece together evidence from dozens of wall reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions with everything he understood about Egyptian religious beliefs and rituals.
What Piccione discovered was that the courtyards of Egyptian temples doubled as arenas for ritualized sport. When Egyptian kids played "batting the ball" in the street, it was just a game. But when Thutmose III hit grounders to the priests in the temple, the action was more than entertainment – it was a clear attempt to please the goddess Hathor.
The ball itself, Piccione believes, ultimately represented the evil eye of Apophis, the great serpent of chaos in Egyptian religion. By whacking the eye with a stick, the Pharaoh dispelled evil and helped bring the universe back into eternal balance.
Piccione's work with Egyptian ballplay and modern baseball has been reported in newspapers around the world, including a feature in Sports Illustrated. But for Piccione, nothing compares with the thrill of archeological detective work.
"When one of [your theories] really clicks, and everything starts working together, you realize you've actually discovered a new piece of information," he says. "That's very, very satisfying."
Read more about Professor Piccione and his ongoing research on his website.