Of all the ancient American civilizations, the Maya developed one of the most advanced systems of writing and numbers. They also used a complex system of calendars to track both time and religious ceremonies.
The Maya used an advanced form of writing called hieroglyphics. Their writing looks similar to the ancient Egyptians, but is actually quite different. In Mayan hieroglyphics, they used symbols (also called glyphs) to represent words, sounds, or objects. By putting several glyphs together the Maya wrote sentences and told stories.
Only the wealthy Maya became priests and learned to read and write. They wrote on long sheets of paper made from bark or leather. These sheets were folded up like an accordion to make books. A Maya book is called a codex (or codices for more than one).
The Maya used a number system with the base number of 20 (we use a base-10 number system). They wrote numbers using a system of bars and dots. A bar represented the number 5. Every 5 numbers they added another bar. The number zero was written with a symbol that looked like a shell. See below for an example of how the Maya wrote the numbers 0 to 19.
Maya Numbers by Ducksters
The Maya had two kinds of calendars, a religious calendar called the Tzolk'in and a solar calendar called the Haab'. Every 52 years the two calendars would start on the same day. They would celebrate the New Fire Festival on this day (El Fuego Nuevo). All the fires throughout their households would be put out and they would throw away all their clay utensils. It was a time of renewal and new beginnings.
The solar calendar, or Haab', had 18 months of 20 days each. There were five extra "unlucky" days in the 19th month to get to total of 365 days in a year. They numbered the days in the month from 0 to 19. Here is a list of the 19 Maya months in the Haab' calendar:
Wayeb (month with only 5 unlucky days)
The religious calendar, or Tzolk'in, was a 260-day calendar. This calendar has two cycles, a 20 day cycle and a 13 day cycle. Each day has a name and a number. The name comes from the 20 day cycle and the number from the 13 day cycle. Here is a list of the 20-day cycle names:
Beginning and End of the World
The Maya also had a third calendar they used for historical purposes. It was called the Long Count Calendar. The Long Count calendar started on August 11, 3114 BC. This was the day on which the Maya believed the world was created. Some people think that the Maya also predicted the end of the world to be on December 21, 2012.
Interesting Facts about Maya Writing, Numbers, and Calendar
Unfortunately, when the Spanish found the Maya codices (books), they thought they were evil and burned them. Only a few survived.
The Maya wrote using black ink made from coal and quills made from turkey feathers.
Each Maya month had a glyph that represented the month. Some of the glyphs also represented animals. For example, the glyph for the month of Sotz also meant bat, Xul meant dog, Muwan meant owl, and K'ayab meant turtle.
The word "Kin" was used to represent a day. It also meant "sun".
The base-20 number system is called the vigesimal system. The Maya wrote large numbers in powers of 20.