Peter Piccione translates hieroglyphs for his history students the way a horror-movie archaeologist deciphers ancient curses from sarcophagi -- slowly and portentously. During slide presentations at the College of Charleston, he'll run through images ranging from papyrus paintings to the Pittsburgh Pirates before posing a question seemingly out of leftfield: "Did the Egyptians invent baseball?"The pictures above link to other articles on the topic. The first one is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
It's a rhetorical question for Piccione. For years this 51-year-old academic sleuth has investigated the mysteries of seker-hemat, a bat-and-ball game that predated Wee Willie Keeler and Big Train Johnson by at least four millennia. Piccione's seminal lecture lures crowds far outside Charleston -- he's given his baseball talk in Chicago, Dallas and Cooperstown; this month he's booked at Emory University in Atlanta -- and the way he tells it, the original sandlot was the Sahara. And the top hitter of 1475 B.C. was the pharaoh Thutmose III, a Near Eastern Leaguer as immortal as Babe Ruth.
An authority on ancient Egypt for three decades -- his doctoral dissertation decoded the rules of the Egyptian board game senet, a distant uncle of Parcheesi -- Piccione is the first scholar to propose that baseball grew out of a Pharaonic fungo. [Not quite, see above.] By decoding reliefs and texts on the walls of temples, the Brooklyn-born Egyptologist has determined that the really old ball game was played by kings during the festivals of certain goddesses and in front of the statues of deities. References to seker-hemat (roughly, "batting the ball") go back 4,400 years. In Piccione's reading of Pyramid Texts Spell 254, gods command a pharaoh to cross the heavens and "strike the ball" in the meadow of the sacred Apis bull.
A thousand years later, at the shrine of the love goddess Hathor in Deir-el-Bahari, Thutmose III was depicted playing pepper. In one hand T-3, as Piccione calls him, brandishes a sort of Memphis Slugger; in the other, a ball resembling the stitched leather orbs that have been found in excavations. Two priests, arms upright, grasp balls in their hands. The inscription: "Catching it for him by the servants of god."
The aim of the game, Piccione reckons, was to swat at and destroy the evil eye of Apopi, the serpent of chaos. Though it's unclear if T-3 was a designated Hittite, the professor suspects seker-hemat involved umpires, baserunning ("Running was a big part of Egyptian games" ) and huge crowds. "Who wouldn't want to see the Pharaoh beat Apopi?" Piccione asks.
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