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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

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 260-day cycle used primarily for religious and ceremonial events. It consists of twenty day-signs combined with numbers from one to thirteen.

  • The Haab: A 360-day 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 longest-lasting 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).

  1. Have students view and take notes on the nine-minute 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


      Column B

      Column C



      • • •

      • •








      • •




      • •


      • • • •

      • • •







      • • • •


      • • •






  2. 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.

  3. Organize students in teams. Distribute copies of the Calendar Count Worksheet to each team.

  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 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 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 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 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 (

Grades 6-8
Number and Operations

Grades 9-12
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.

Teacher's Guide
Cracking the Maya Code

VideoThe Forgotten Maya Temples
QuickTime or Windows Media Video (9m 11s)

Koch Foundation