
Cracking the Maya Code


Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students see how
scientists began to unravel the meaning of Maya glyphs and then determine their
own birth date using the Maya Long Count calendar system.
Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:
explain
some of the similarities and differences between the Maya and U.S. mathematical
systems.
calculate sums using Maya symbols.
understand
and use the Maya Long Count calendar system.
Multimedia Resources
Additional Materials
Background
The Maya
civilization began about 2600 BC
and thrived for more than 2,000 years. It reached its height of glory at about
the same time the Europeans were entering the Dark Ages (about AD 410). The Maya were renowned for
their monumental architecture, exquisite art, and advances in mathematics and
astronomy.
One of the most
remarkable achievements of the Maya was their complex calendar system. The Maya
developed three types of calendars, each serving a unique purpose:
The Tzolkin: A 260day cycle used primarily for religious and ceremonial events. It
consists of twenty daysigns combined with numbers from one to thirteen.
The Haab: A 360day cycle for keeping track of seasons. The
Haab calendar consists of eighteen months of twenty days each, and most closely
resembles our solar year.
The Long Count: The longestlasting cycle, lasting about 5,125 years. It signifies the
length of a Creation period. We are currently in the Fourth Creation, which
began on August 13, 3114 BC and
will end AD December 22, 2012.
When combined,
the Tzolkin and Haab calendars could track 52 years of time before day
combinations began to repeat. This combination of these two calendars was known
as the Calendar Round.
Unlike U.S.
mathematics, which works on a base 10 system, the Long Count works on a base 20
(vigesimal) system. In the base 10 system, a number in the
first place is represented by numbers one to nine. The second place value is 10
times the number in that place (10)^{1}, the third place value is 100
times the number (10)^{2}, and so on. In a base 20 system, the first
place value is represented by numbers one through nineteen, the second value is
20 times the number (20)^{1}, the third place value is 400 times the
number (20)^{2}, and so on.
Many Maya structures feature engraved stone monuments,
known as stelae, that reveal the date the monument was built (visit Decode
Stela 3 to see Maya and English translations of an actual Maya stela).
Have students view and take notes on the nineminute The Forgotten Maya
Temples video clip. Tell students they will learn
about where the Maya lived, what they were known for, and how scientists first
started to decipher Maya glyphs. Follow the video with a discussion of the
questions below:
Why is
understanding original Maya writing important? (Because it provides a
picture of Maya history before the arrival of Europeans.)
Where is the
Maya region located? (In the region extending from southern Mexico through
much of Central America.)
Why is it
important to not rely solely on drawings in field research? (While drawings
can be helpful, the person creating them may introduce errors or omit important
data when making them. False conclusions may be drawn based on the drawing.
Photographs, [or when appropriate, field samples] provide actual
representations of an object under study.)
Write the
following Maya symbols on the board. Tell students that, like U.S. mathematics,
Maya math uses a place value system. The only difference is that the place
value is denoted vertically, rather than along a horizontal axis like in the
U.S. system. Review the places values for each level and numerical values for
each symbol (one dot = one; one bar = five). Walk through the Column A problem
and answer with students and then have students calculate the solutions for the
other columns. (Column B = 26,981; Column
C = 98,663)

Column A

Answer

Column B

Column C

8000s

•

8,000

• • •

• •






400s



• •

•



2,000



20s

•
•

40

• • •
•

• • •






1s

•
• • •

4

•

• • •

TOTAL


10,044



Tell students they will now learn how to calculate their date of birth using
one of the Maya calendar systems: the Long Count. The Maya Long Count system
uses a base 20 number system. Review the difference between a base 10 system,
which students are familiar with, and a base 20 system. Read the student
handout to familiarize yourself with the calculations students will make.
Organize students in teams. Distribute copies of the Calendar Count
Worksheet to each team.
Assist students in calculating their birth date according to Maya Long Count.
As an extension, have student calculate how many days
until the Fourth Creation ends (December 22, 2012) and how many total days are
in the Fourth Creation.
Days from the beginning of the Maya Fourth Creation to
December 31, 1987:
12.18.14.11.16 =
12 baktuns x 144,000 days = 1,728,000
18 katuns x 7,200 days = 129,600
14 tuns x 360 days = 5,040
11 uinal x 20 days = 220
16 kin x 1 day = 16
Total = 1,862,876
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 1988 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, 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, however, 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 584,285 days on the Gregorian
calendar, thus the first day of the Maya Long Count would be the 584,286th day
on the Gregorian calendar. This correlation is incorporated into all Long Count
calculations in this activity.
The "Calendar Count" activity aligns with the following Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (standards.nctm.org/document/index.htm).
Grades 68
Number and Operations
Grades 912
Number and Operations
Classroom Activity Author
Written by Mary
C. Turck. This classroom activity originally appeared
in the companion Teacher's Guide for NOVA's "Lost King of the Maya"
program.

