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Hockey: an ancient sport?

Sport enthusiast and archaeological investigator Heini Davies writes a tale outlining the historical connotations of the game that rapidly changes today.  Hockey has history instilled into its core, and this is a brief outline of its humble beginnings, back in ancient times.

Living in Greece for the past few months has given me the chance to see some pretty awesome stuff. I’ve seen some of the most iconic artefacts and monuments in the world, been up the Acropolis (four times and counting) and have even explored the labyrinths of the Minoan palaces. Yet, one of the most intriguing objects that I have come across is ‘The Hockey Relief’, housed in the National Archaeology Museum. Dated to 510-500 BC, this relief is depicted on a marble base of a funerary kouros (a statue of a nude male man). Although found built into a wall, this monument would originally have stood on the grave of an athlete.

The front relief depicts two men with sticks engaged in a competition for the ball, with two additional figures on each side. On the sides of the monument we have representations of a procession with horse led chariots and hoplite soldiers.

ancient-greek-hockey

Labelling this as a representation of the modern form of field hockey is a bit misleading, as the modern form of the game is the result of centuries of development, only beginning to be standardised in eighteenth century England. Indeed, it seems to me that nowadays it more closely resembles the traditional Scottish sport, Shinty, with the pronounced curve of the base of the stick (although I might be biased, having played this wonderful sport for four years at university). However, what is fascinating is that this archaic form of a stick-and-ball game clearly played an important role in ancient culture and ideology of the ancient Greeks.

It is most likely that walking past his funerary monument, the depiction facing the observer would have been of the sporting scene. It is difficult to tell whether or not this would have been a sport played by individuals or if it was a team game (are the figures on the side-lines participating, or simply watching, waiting their turn?) It could even have been a certain element of a ‘coming of age’ ritual or initiation into the military, during which young men were required to exhibit their physical prowess.

This is surely an ideology that we should carry into our own battles on the hockey pitch, every single week

Although the context is unclear, what is significant is that the memory and identity of the individual was embedded in this ancient activity. The side panels indicate that he was a hoplite warrior, yet he is not individualised but a part of a broader narrative. Indeed, hoplite warriors are well known for their team-work. Advancing in battle, they would create a phalanx formation, during which they would stand huddled together, half the shield of one man protecting the man to his side, creating a protective, close formation. The individual becomes a part of a whole, the men advancing together in an effort to defend themselves and defeat the opposition.

The depictions of the monument represent values that are still central to the game today. There is still a striking resemblance between the ideology associated with war battles and team sports (New Zealand rugby team’s Haka anyone?), and indeed what this monument shows that as sportspeople, we have a lot to learn from the ancient Greeks. Whoever was commemorated with this base was remembered for his athletic ability on the one hand, yet for their self-sacrifice and team work on the other. For the ancient Greeks victory in battle and obtaining honour was invariably a result of working for and with the person next to you, fighting until the death. This is surely an ideology that we should carry into our own battles on the hockey pitch, every single week.

Written by Heini Davies

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