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A guide to...

Maya Writing
& Calendar


Why were the Maya famous for their writing and calendar systems?

The Maya were famous for developing a system of recording writing, numbers and dates. Their writing systems were very advanced compared to other ancient American civilizations. The Maya were particularly well known for their sophisticated calendars that helped them to track the time and plan important events like religious ceremonies. 

What did Maya letters and numbers look like?

The Maya recorded their writing in a form of symbols called hieroglyphics. Each symbol (or ‘glyph’) was able to represent particular words, ideas or sounds. Sentences and even whole stories could be formed by placing several glyphs together.


The Maya number system was made up of different combinations of shapes, with a shell-shape representing zero, a dot representing one and a bar representing 5. 

Could everybody read and write?


In Maya culture, reading and writing was reserved for rich people who became priests. The priests had access to black ink made from coal and special turkey-feather pens called ‘quills’. The priests would write on long sheets of paper that could be folded together to make a book, called a ‘codex’. Unfortunately, not many of the codices have survived because many were burned by Spanish explorers who thought the books were evil.

What was the Maya calendar like?


The Maya calendar was based on a very complicated mathematical system that brought together ways of counting time from astronomy and religion. The astronomical system, called the Haab’, was counted by tracking the movement of objects in space, especially the Sun and planet Venus. The religious calendar system was called the Tzolk’in and was made up of a 260-day cycle broken up into repeated sections of 20 days and 13 days. The two cycles came together every 52 years and this would be celebrated with a New Fire Festival called El Fuego Nuevo, which was a time of new beginnings.

Find out more about Maya calendars in our KS2 history lesson: How did the Maya keep track of Time?

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