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Mayan Writing

& Calendar

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

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

What did Mayan letters and numbers look like?

The Mayans 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 Mayan 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 Mayan 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 Mayan calendar like?


The Mayan 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.