Deciphering the Maya Calendar

By Dani Knod

The Maya were people of mystery. Not because they were careless and did not record their history but because the invasion of the Spaniards led to the burning of most of their carefully written past. Scant few remnants of original texts, along with a rich story of an advanced culture preserved in the ruins of their once great cities, are all that remain to tell the tale of this amazing civilization. Efforts begun in the 19th century led to an understanding, or perhaps a deciphering, of one of the greatest Maya mysteries: their concept of time - the Maya Calendar - said to be the most perfect method of tracking time known to man.

The colorful character, Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, launched the first of those efforts. Brasseur was born in France in 1814, and it did not take long for this author of trashy novels to realize he needed better connections if he was going to succeed in life, so he aptly entered the Church. It was while ferreting around in church archives that he discovered the Popul Vuh (the Maya story of creation). During this research period, Brasseur also gave light to the only first-hand account of Maya life, Bishop Diego de Landa’s Rélacion de las Cosas de Yucatan as well as the Maya Codices of the Troano and Cortesianus now joined together as the Madrid Codex. The recovery of Bishop Landa’s Rélacion was the key ingredient behind Brasseur’s success, for it contained drawings, labeled in Spanish, of the Maya hieroglyphs that helped explain their calendar.

It was known at this point in history that the Maya had two calendars that were meshed together. The first was the Tzolkin, a 260-day repeating cycle. The second was the Haab, or “vague year” of 365 days; so called because the actual length of the solar year is about a quarter-day more. (This extra quarter day, of course, is the reason for our leap-years). Brasseur was now able to reference a table held within Rélacion to find the names of the 20 days in the Tzolkin and the 19 months in the ‘vague year’ as well as the appropriate Maya glyph for each. He could begin to make sense of what the drawings meant.

Brasseur learned that the Maya used a series of lines and dots for their numbering system, a discovery he was later to find had already been made by researcher Constantine Rafinesque. Each dot stood for individual digits up to 4 and lines represented 5’s. For example, the number 6 was shown as a line with a dot and 18 as three lines and three dots.

The 260-day cycle of the Tzolkin included the 20 days with their respective Maya glyphs in addition to the numbers 1 through 13. The Tzolkin cycle, however, was not constructed in the typical sequential manner as our Gregorian calendar. Rather, imagine two geared wheels rotating in opposite directions: one with the numbers 1 through 13 on its teeth and the other with the 20 glyphs representing the days on its teeth. As the gears rotate, the cycle numbers correlate to the pairs of gears that meet from each wheel. There are 260 unique combinations of glyphs and numbers, and after each has been made, the cycle starts again.

Within the Haab or the ‘vague year,’ there were 18 “months” of 20 days each with an unlucky 19th interval or “month” of 5 days added at the end to total the 365 days of the year. Each of the 19 time periods had its appropriate name and glyph as well. These months were counted sequentially just as our months, however they begin with zero and go through 19.

The result of having two time cycles meant that every day had two names – one for each cycle (for example 4 Kan 5 Yaxk’in). And, since each calendar had different lengths, any specific combination of dates did not reoccur for 52 ‘vague’ years or 73 tzolkins (52 x 365 = 18,980 = 73 x 260). This period of time, 52 years of the Gregorian calendar, is known as the Aztec Century, or to the Maya as the Calendar Round.

This form of recording dates was fine for the Aztecs who were mainly concerned about the magic or omen for each of these combinations. However, where the calendar fell short for the Maya was in the ability to record dates that fell beyond the 52-year cycle. The Maya circumvented this flaw by developing a second way of recording time called the ‘Long Count.’ Just as today’s Gregorian calendar centralizes around one date, the birth of Christ in year 0 AD, the Maya chose the birth of Venus as the beginning of their calendar. Being astute astronomers, the Maya followed the movements of Venus extremely closely, and the celestial travels of that planet formed the basis of a complex calendrical system that stretched over thousands of years.

The breaking of the Mayan Venetian calendar code was to be in the hands of German librarian, Ernst Förstemann, working in the library of Dresden – the home of the most important of all Maya documents, the Dresden Codex. With this document as well as Bishop Landa’s Rélacion, Förstemann came to find that the Maya did not employ 260 days (Tzolkin) or 365 days (Haab) for the length of each period of the Long Count. Rather, they used the tun, an interval of 360 days. He deduced the Long Count cycles to be:

20 kins = 1 uinal = 20 days
18 uinals = 1 tun = 360 days
20 tuns = 1 katun = 7,200 days
20 katuns = 1 baktun = 144,000 days

In his research, Förstemann had undoubtedly uncovered the key to the Maya dating system; however, he hadn’t quite broken the code. Though he was able to read the Long Count dates held within the Dresden, he was unable to link them to any known dates in our Gregorian Calendar. This final achievement, allowing for all Maya Long Count dates to be translated into recognizable Gregorian dates, would come some time later and from other minds.

Though published in 18xx (give date) as an appendix to his five-volume Biologia Centrali-Americana, Alfred Maudsley’s Archaeology proved to be another milestone in Maya research. This book contained a catalog of Maya inscriptions known to date, allowing each to be analyzed and decoded with Landa’s text and the data of the codices.

Enter hotshot journalist Joseph T. Goodman. After creating two newspapers that were pivotal to the Wild West boomtowns of Virginia City (near Reno) and San Francisco, the young entrepreneur decided to settle with his wealth and pick up a new hobby, Maya studies. In 1905, after a previous publishing that was not well received by the Mayanists of the age, Goodman published “Maya Dates” in the journal American Anthropologist. He went on to present groundbreaking work claiming it possible to correlate Maya Long Count dates to the Gregorian counterpart.

Although his contribution was again largely ignored, Goodman’s work made connections that would eventually allow other scholars to piece together a full chronology for the Maya civilization. In the end, his work was accepted – with a minor adjustment of three days – by the premiere Mayanist of all time, Eric Thompson. It was established that the end of the last great cycle and the start of the present one corresponded to the date August 13, 3114 BC.

There are people who speculate the Great Cycle to be 13 baktuns, 1,872,000 days, placing the end of the present cycle on December 22, 2012 - not so far away. However, with so much of the ancient Maya written word having burned as a result of medieval ignorance, we can only speculate about what sorts of secrets are forever sealed behind the stone lips of their ruins – maybe never to be spoken again. Did they possess advanced knowledge about the workings of our universe? With the type of astronomical genius required to create the Maya Calendar, perhaps they did. In any event, I will continually ponder what else they could have taught us about the same stars still over our heads.