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Lost King of the Maya

Classroom Activity


Objective
To understand and apply the Maya Long Count calendar system.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "Calendar Count" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • calculator

Procedure
  1. Read the student handout to familiarize yourself with the calculations that students will make.

  2. Organize students in groups. Distribute copies of the "Calendar Count" student handout.

  3. Tell students they will be calculating the date of their birth in the Maya Long Count calendar system. The Maya Long Count system uses a base 20 number system. Review the difference between the base 10 system, which students are familiar with, and a base 20 system.

  4. Assist students in calculating their birth date according to Maya Long Count.

  5. As an extension, have student calculate how many days until the Fourth Creation ends (December 21, 2012) and how many total days are in the Fourth Creation.

Activity Answer

The Maya used three different calendar systems. One of them, called the Calendar Round, combined the tzolkin calendar—a sacred count of 260 days—and the haab calendar, a solar count of 365 days, which when used together could track unique days up to 52 years. In order to track time over a longer period, the Maya coordinated the Calendar Round with the Long Count, which is based on the number of days from a set point: the beginning date of the Fourth Creation (0.0.0.0.0), equivalent to August 13, 3114 B.C.E. in the modern calendar system. (Each zero date is considered the most recent of an infinite series of zero dates, which repeat every five thousand years or so.)

The Long Count works on a base 20 system. The following are the equivalencies for the units necessary to calculate time in a 5,000+-year Creation. However, the Long Count has additional representations for larger units; the largest, an analtun, is equivalent to approximately 64 million years.

Days from the beginning of the Maya Fourth Creation
to December 31, 1979:

12.18.6.9.14 =

12 baktuns x 144,000 days =       
18 katuns x 7,200 days =
6 tuns x 360 days =
9 uinal x 20 days =
14 kin x 1 day =
Total =

1,728,000
129,600
2,160
180
14
1,859,955

The number of days to each student's birth date will vary. Check to make sure students include the extra day for each leap year, and the day of their birth. Students will add the number of days from 1980 to their birth date to the number of days they converted in the first part of the activity. Students will then use the conversion chart to convert the number of total days back into Maya Long Count, dividing first by the largest equivalent (baktun at 144,000 days) successively down to the smallest equivalent (kin at 1 day).

The Fourth Creation will be completed on December 22, 2012 C.E., the Maya date of 12.19.19.17.19. Scholars disagree on the precise correlation of the Gregorian and Maya calendars. Their disagreements turn on differences of days, not decades. A correlation is necessary to equate a Gregorian date with a Maya date; this means finding a particular date that is identified by both systems. For this activity, the correlation for the most recent day of Maya Long Count 0.0.0.0.0 is 584,283 days on the Gregorian calendar, thus the first day of the Maya Long Count would be the 584,284th day on the Gregorian calendar. This correlation is incorporated into all Long Count calculation in this activity.

Links and Books

Book

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Quill/W. Morrow and Co., 1992.
Brings to life the rulers of the ancient Maya, with scholarly work that reads like short stories.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Lost King of the Maya
http://www.pbs.org/nova/maya/
Provides program-related articles, interviews, interactive activities, resources, and more.

Calendar FAQ
http://www.landfield.com/faqs/calendars/faq/part1/
This three-part article answers frequently asked questions about calendars and provides an overview of the Christian, Hebrew, and Islamic calendars in common use. It also provides a historical background for the Christian calendar, plus an overview of the French Revolutionary calendar, the Maya calendar, and the Chinese calendar.

The Maya Calendar
http://www.mayacalendar.com/mayacalendar/
Includes links to many Maya-related sites, as well as illustrations of calendar glyphs and number symbols. Links offer routes to extend study into additional aspects of Maya life and culture.

Maya Calendar Tools
http://www.pauahtun.org/tools.html
Includes a number of Maya calendar conversion tools.

Standards

The "Calendar Count" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards.

Grades 6-8

Number and Operations

Mathematics Standard:
Number and Operations

Grades 9-12

Number and Operations

Mathematics Standard:
Number and Operations

Teacher's Guide
Lost King of the Maya
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