This post “The Maya Calendar” is an excerpt of the 2nd edition of my book “The Maya Sites – Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest”, a travel guide to the most important Maya sites on the Yucatán peninsula – in México and Guatemala. The 2nd edition will be published as print and ebook in spring 2018.
I split this article into seven parts:
- The Maya calendar – Part 1 – Introduction
- The Maya calendar – Part 2 – Haab, the Solar Year
- The Maya calendar – Part 3 – Tzolkin, the Sacred Calendar
- The Maya calendar – Part 4 – The Calendar Round
- The Maya calendar – Part 5 – The Long Count <<– You are here
- The Maya calendar – Part 6 – The Numbers and the Vigesimal System
- The Maya calendar – Part 7 – Dates and Numbers in the Inscriptions
The Maya Calendar – Part 5 – The Long Count in the Maya Inscriptions
In this part of the series about the Maya calendar you will learn about:
- The Long Count – an Additional Calendar
- Kin, Uinal, Tun, Katun, Baktun – Time structures
- Notation of the numbers in the long count
- The calendar calculation
- Conversion from the Maya calendar to the Gregorian calendar
- Rough calculation when you don’t have a computer at hand
- Representation of the time units in the inscriptions
- The number 13 in the calculation of the Baktun
- The Creation Day
- The Correlation
The Long Count – an Additional Calendar
For particularly long periods of time, the Maya used special units. The entire system that is available for date calculation is nowadays called “The Long Count” by researchers. With the Long Count, time periods could be calculated beyond the 52 years that are possible in the calendar round.
For this purpose, in addition to the already mentioned units, Kin, Uinal, and Tun, some more units were added to the list and all in all the time that had passed since the day of creation was noted. Further below, I will explain what the creation day is all about.
This corresponds to our partitioning of time in centuries or millennia. The time periods of the Maya, however, had a completely different length than our time units because, as mentioned in the previous posts, they used a Vigesimal number system. The following list shows these time units, their names, and duration.
The names of the minor periods are known from the early colonial records. Kin, Uinal, Tun, Katun, and Baktun were named by the Maya in the same way. For the positions 6 to 9, Pictun, Calabtun, Kinichiltun, and Alautun, the Maya researchers invented their own terms based on the Mayan language. The latter are rarely used.
Note that except for Tun, the numbers always contain 20 values, while for Tun it is only 18, so the actual counting always starts at 0 and ends at 19 or for the Tun at 17.
Kin, Uinal, Tun, Katun, Baktun – Time structures
Let’s take a closer look at the system:
- Kin: The smallest unit is Kin, the equivalent of one day.
- Uinal: 20 Kin form one Uinal, which corresponds roughly to one month.
- Tun: 18 Uinal result in a Tun, which corresponds to about one year. It has 20 x 18 = 360 days. Note! The Year in the long count has not 365 days!).
- Katun: If you summarize 20 Tun, you get a Katun, twenty years.
- Baktun: 20 Katun make a Baktun. This covers a period of 400 years.
- Pictun and the rest: The next longer period, the Pictun, would then be 8000 years. Since most of the inscriptions deal with historical events and all of them took place in Pictun 0, the large units hardly ever appear in inscriptions. I continue without a further description of them.
Notation of the numbers in the long count
To describe a date with our modern signs, the values are written from left to right, from the larger units to the smaller ones, in a similar way as we would note a number in our system.
For example, 2001, the thousands digit is on the left. Then on the right the hundreds, tens and ones are written in order.
Let’s take a Maya calendar date. The number I used here
9 Baktun 9 Katun 2 Tun 4 Uinal 8 Kin
would identify a unique date.
In short, you would write:
These 5 number define a common Maya calendar date of the classic period. But what does it mean?
The calendar calculation
Attention, let’s do some math. The multiplication tables of the Maya calendar calculation, so to speak.
If you do a calculation according to the table above, what I do here, you get the number:
I did the calculation in this way:
This is the number of days that have elapsed since day zero in the Maya calendar.
What is day 0 in the Maya world? Nothing else than the mythological creation date of the Maya world.
Accordingly, 1361608 days have passed since the creation day of the Maya to the date 18.104.22.168.8.
Conversion from the Maya calendar to the Gregorian calendar
You might like to know at which time in our calendar 22.214.171.124.8 occured. Therefor a bunch of coversion calculations have to be done.
By the way, converted to our calendar, the date of the sample calculation results in the 26. day of the month July in the year 615 AD.
The date is an important one and well known from inscriptions. On that day, Pakal the Great ascended the throne of Palenque, just 12 years old.
But how do we get from the number 1361608 to 26-7-615 AD?
The easiest way to convert the day number into a Gregorian date is to use a computer program. On the Internet, there are numerous pages that offer a corresponding calendar conversion.
Rough calculation when you don’t have a computer at hand
You can also use a calculator or use the calculator on your smartphone to determine the year (roughly). A sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen do the same.
The formula for this is simple and provides at least a rough result:
Year = (number of days / 365.25) – 3112.31
If we use the number 1361608, this results in fact in 615,569535. Just ignore the decimals. The result is 615.
The method is not exact. Depending on whether leap years are involved, the value can differ by one year from the actual year. But for someone who just wants to estimate an inscription on site, this formula is perfect.
There is more information the Maya have left in the inscriptions. In addition to the long count, they also recorded the exact day of the Calendar Round, the day of Tzolkin and Haab. Therefore, a complete inscription would have consisted of the following values:
126.96.36.199.4.7 5 Lamat 1 Mol
Representation of the time units in the inscriptions
In the inscriptions, the Maya used special signs to identify the individual time units. The illustration below shows the 5 most important periods in their symbolic representation. The second line contains a header variant that the writers could use as desired.
The number 13 in the calculation of the Baktun
There is a special feature to consider when counting the Baktun. The Maya did not use the number 0 for the first Baktun, as we would expect, but started their count with 13. The second Baktun was the one with the number 1, but after 19 Baktun the counter does not jump to 20 and not to 13 too but to 0.
The number 13 had a special status with the old Maya and was worshipped as a holy number. At least that’s how you can explain this oddity.
The Creation Day – August 13, 3114 BC
The day of creation can actually only have taken place on the first day of the Maya era. That would be the date 188.8.131.52.0 so in the 13th Baktun, which, as I have just said, corresponds to the Baktun with the number 0.
In fact, this number can be found in some inscriptions throughout the entire Maya area of the classical period. A particularly impressive example was discovered at Stele C in Quirigua in Guatemala. (I show this in part 7 of this series)
Converted to the Gregorian calendar, the creation date of the Maya was August 13, 3114 BC. According to the count of the calendar round, it was 4 Ahau 8 Kumku.
The complete date therefor was: 184.108.40.206.0 4 Ahau 8 Kumku
From this date on, the days are counted, sometimes even into the future.
A big problem was the synchronization of the Maya calendar dates with our Christian-Gregorian calendar in order to be able to determine when exactly an event recorded by the Maya actually took place.
For a long time, there was disagreement about this correlation. When the Spanish conquerors began to document the Mayan culture, the long count as it can be found in the inscriptions had long since ceased to be used.
From the sparse records of colonial times, be it from Spanish clergymen or documents written by Maya, from various astronomical records in the codices and on the basis of astronomical observations (super-nova, special planetary constellations) recorded in the inscriptions, it was nevertheless possible to link the two calendars with each other.
Most researchers are following the so-called Thompson correlation currently. Due to its correlation number, the beginning of the Maya calendar was put on August 13, 3114 BC.
It remains to be seen how long this correlation number will last. But of course, it makes sense to agree on a single kind of time calculation, so that you can at least compare different books with each other.
Continue with >>> The Maya calendar – Part 6 – The Numbers and the Vigesimal System