In 1839 John Lloyd Stephens discovered the first lost Maya city in the impenetrable forests of Central America. This was the beginning of amazing discoveries of the advanced Maya civilisation. Although the Maya are known for their massive stone buildings such as their pyramids, shrines and temples, we are still surprised by their knowledge of mathematics, writing and astronomy.
In mathematics the Maya used the vigesimal or base 20 numeral system, they recognised and were using the number zero, and their way of recording numbers made it possible to write very large numbers in a simple way. They marked numbers using normal form glyphs, i.e. bar-and-dot notation, or head-variant glyphs which are more difficult to read and depict deities' heads.
The Maya used image writing but they were the first to develop a font where the characters met the syllables of the spoken language. They were excellent astronomers. They accurately predicted the movements of Venus, the Moon and Mars and could calculate solar eclipses. Mayan astronomy, mathematics, writing, architecture and sculpture are closely linked to time and therefore calendars. The carved reliefs on buildings, slabs and walls are connected to time and events. The Maya script or writing system contains texts, illustrations and numbers in relation to the Mayan calendar. It also contains the Venus table, the Mars table and the table of eclipses, going far into the past and future.
The evidence of how important time was to the Maya is the fact that they used several different calendars:
Colkin – this 260-day calendar played an important role in Maya religion and astrology. It consists of 20 characters and 13 consecutive numbers.
Haab – the 365-day calendar and Mayan calendar year. This calendar consists of 18 months of 20 days, and an additional 5 days. According to the Mayan calendar, a year is 365.242129 days long, and the calendar is closest to the astronomical calculation of 365.24198 days.
The Long Count Calendar is the most famous one. The initial record of the calendar is 0.0.0.0.0, with 126.96.36.199.0 being the final record. In our calendar it means 5125 calendar years beginning on 11 August 3114 B.C. and ending on 21 December 2012 A.D.. This day marks the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one.
The Maya also had a 52-year cycle. This cycle is a combination of the 260-day and the 365-day calendars and is known by the term Calendar Round. The Maya believed in the cyclical repetition of time.