The Maya Sense of Time – Archaeology Magazine

The Maya Sense of Time – Archaeology Magazine.


December 21, 2012 –Is it the end? Or a new beginning?

Since ending the Peru chronicles a couple of weeks ago I have been adrift, thinking where do I go next?  My blog oddly silent.  Today I am contemplating the end of the world. What better way to end this year than with a post about, well, the end.

I woke up this morning thinking, well is it?  If it’s true and 12/21/12 is the apocalypse, when will it happen?  Tonight at midnight?  Tomorrow at noon? Or will we make it until the very end of the day 11:59 pm and then poof!  Nothingness?  Giant fireballs from the sky?  And if it does happen – no Christmas, no New Year’s Eve.  Not cool Ancient Mayans!

Mayan Calendrics

Calendar round

So forgive me as I go into teacher mode…The basic function of a calendar is to define and organize periods of time in a way which allows events to be fixed, ordered, and noted relative to each other.  In Mesoamerica they were also used in religious observances and social rituals.  The Maya calendar system as is a complex system that integrates 3 distinct calendars: The tzolk’in, haab’, and Long Count calendars.

A typical Mayan date looks like this:, 3 Cimi, 4 Zotz

  • is the long count
  • 3 Cimi is the Tzolk’in date
  • 4 Zotz is the Haab’ date

The tzolk’in is a 260 day ritual calendar.  It pairs 20 day names with 13 day numbers to total a cycle of 260 days.  The tzolk’in is used for divination purposes.  Each day sign presided over by a god and many were associated with specific natural phenomena.  Individuals were often known by the day name of their birth.

Exact origin of this calendar is unknown.  There are several theories as to its origin.

  1. It came from mathematical operations based on the numbers 13 and 20, numbers important to the Maya
  2. It came from the length of human pregnancy
  3. It came from an understanding of astronomy, geography, & paleontology

The haab’ is a 365 day calendar that is similar to our own. The haab’ is a product of astronomical reckoning that is used in agricultural production.  The haab’ is comprised of 18 months with 20 days each.  At the end of the solar year there are 5 unlucky days called wayeb’.

The tzolk’in and haab’ could be synchronized to generate a calendar round, a period of approximately 52 years.  This is 18,980 uniquely named days.  The Maya held rituals at the end of each 52 year cycle where all fires extinguished, old pots broken, and a new fire symbolizing a fresh start.  The completion & observance of the calendar round sequence was of ritual significance to a number of Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya.

For those of you who crave more, look at the Popol Vuh, the Maya book of counsel.  It is the creation myth of the K’iche’ (Quiché) Maya in the north-central Guatemalan highlands.  It explains the  origins of humans, animals, and celestial bodies.

Now for what you really want to know about – The Long Count Calendar! 

The 52 year calendar round cycle was enough to identify a specific date to most peoples satisfaction because the combination did not repeat again for another 52 years, above the general life expectancy of the average Maya individual.  The Long Count Calendar was employed to measure dates over a period longer than this.  Maya developed this system to its fullest during the Classic Period (ca. 200-900 CE).  The Long Count Calendar provided the ability to uniquely identify days over a much longer period of time by combining a sequence of day counts or cycles of increasing length, calculated from a specific date in the mythic past.  Five cycles in a vigesimal (base of 20) count were used to generate a linear progression of days to span a period of approximately 5125 solar years.  This particular cycle started on August 13, 3114 BCE and ends tomorrow on December 21, 2012.

Is December 21, 2012 – Doomsday?


According to all the hype surrounding Dec. 21, 2012, the Maya “predicted” the end of the world with their Long Count calendar – movies, television, books, and internet websites.   On this date, doomsayers assert that Earth will be ravaged by a number of cataclysmic astronomical events — everything from a Planet X flyby to a “killer” solar flare to a geomagnetic reversal, ensuring we have a very, very bad day.

The Maya Never Predicted Doomsday!


 The Maya Long Count Calendar does not predict an apocalypse.  It never did, despite what the movies, TV, books, and the internet tell us.  What is the problem then?  The Long Count was used by the Maya to document past and future events.  Their other calendars were simply too short to document any date beyond 52 years.   Remember, the 52-year calendar — known as the “Calendar Round” — was used as it spans a generation, or the approximate lifetime of an individual.  Using the Calendar Round meant that events in a person’s life could be chronicled over 52 years — spanning 18,980 unique days.   But what if the Maya wanted to keep note of a historical event that occurred more than 52 years ago?  Or perhaps mark a date more than 52 years into the future?  That is why they created a numerically linear long count calendar.  Now, purely as a consequence of the Long Count’s numerical value, many Mayan scholars agree that the calendar will “run out” after 5,126 years (or, at least, this cycle does).  The Mayans set this calendar to begin in the year 3114 B.C. (according to our modern Gregorian calendar).   If the Long Count began in 3114 B.C. and it’s calculated to continue for 5126 years, the “end date” will be — you guessed it — 2012 A.D.   Further refinement sets the date to Dec. 21, the day of the winter solstice for the Northern Hemisphere.


If not Armageddon, Then What?

What I learned from understanding the Maya calendar system is that it isn’t about death at all, but about life – the celebration of it, and in the Maya mythology it is about the recreation of life.  It is a opportunity to reassess, to take stock of where you are, where you have been, and where you want to be in the future.  Isn’t that what celebrating the New Year is about in our culture anyway?  The Maya are just doing so on a larger scale every 5,126 years.

As I take this opportunity to contemplate 2012, it has been a year filled will both great joys and sorrows.  There have been quiet moments and loud ones, accomplishments and mistakes, days that I wished would never end and ones that couldn’t end fast enough.  What I am left with is a feeling of gratitude for every moment I have been given with the people I care about.

And if I’m wrong and the world does end tomorrow, well thanks for the ride…

Ancient drawings in Peruvian desert: New light on the Nazca Lines

Ancient drawings in Peruvian desert: New light on the Nazca Lines.


okay, so maybe one more ….

¡Adiós Perú, ha sido divertido!


The day has finally arrived, I have said all I can think of to say about our trip to Peru.  The journey to Peru itself was fantastic and overwhelming.  We experienced so much in such a short period of time that it seems almost surreal.  Lima, Ica, Nazca, Cusco, Tambopata Ecological Reserve – All in 17 days.


My favorite city in Peru was definitely Cusco, it had a personality and charm to it that appealed to me.  My top 2 experiences while there were definitely flying over the Nazca lines and pilgrimaging to Machu Picchu.


I can admit now that I was scared silly of the thought of getting on that tiny plane to see the lines.  Truth be told it was the smoothest plane ride I have ever taken.

I started this blog with the intent that we would check in while abroad with those here in the U.S.  What it turned into was, well, very different.  I thought maybe my mom, husband, and a few friends or co-workers would check in to see how our trip went.  And they did.  What I realized when we returned is that a few short sentences written an 1 am did not do our experience justice.  I also had a journal full of data and thoughts sitting on the edge of my desk. So I continued to write.

I started my reflections postings as a way to process what I had learned, and as a way to re-experience it at a slower more thoughtful pace.  I said maybe those same family and friends would like to hear more too.  And they did.  But so did so many more of you.  I want to say thank you for taking the journey with me.  I found that I like sharing my thoughts with you and I am flattered that you find them interesting.

I will leave all things Peru with the promise that there will be more to come – from other interesting places.  We will travel to Ecuador this summer and I just returned from a short trip to Western Ireland.  Maybe I shall describe that in the mean time.

As I leave Peru in my rear-view mirror I thank you for going along for the ride and will share the 10 things I learned.

10 Things I learned in Peru:

1. There are levels of clean and dirty in life

2. Moving in with complete strangers is only weird for the first 15 minutes, especially if you are exhausted

3. Never eat eggs that don’t look cooked well done

4. Spanglish is a valid form of communication

5. The idea of trekking through the jungle is much more glamorous than actually doing so

6. You can be stalked by a bird, and feel weirdly violated because of it

7. Just because all the seats on the bus are taken & there are 9 people standing in the center aisle, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for 10 or 12 more

8. When on said bus, some unknown individual will inevitably grab your booty

9. Coffee beans grown in Peru are only enjoyed by people who don’t actually live in Peru (along with a few other common U.S. imports)

10. I never (again) want to ask the question “what are we looking for?” And have the answer be ” the giant anaconda.”

Chair of Social Science, Humanities,
& Foreign Languages

Liberal Arts & University Transfer
Craven Community College

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New Bern, NC 28562
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