Maya Numerals for Beginners

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is coming our way later this year and while we don’t know much about the upcoming game at the time of writing, it’s no secret that the game will be touching on Maya civilisation and mythology.

The first piece of official artwork features a Maya temple towering over dense jungle foliage and the official site used a series of Maya-themed puzzles throughout March and April to promote Lara’s next adventure. In a couple of these puzzles, numerical values were assigned to each of the glyphs and fans were then instructed to line up the glyphs correctly in order to unlock the signs for a significant date. The date in question is the game’s release year, 2018.

The glyphs used in these puzzles may not have been accurate representations of the glyph forms of Maya numerals but let’s take a quick look at the numerals used in the example below. The symbol in the centre of the three rings of glyphs is the Maya equivalent of the number “8”, which is represented by three dots and a bar. The dots each have a numerical value of 1, while the bar has a numerical value of 5 (i.e. 1+1+1+5 = 8).

One of the puzzles used by the official Tomb Raider site to promote 'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' involves Maya numerals
One of the puzzles used by the official Tomb Raider site to promote Shadow of the Tomb Raider

The four symbols in the boxes to the left of the rings of glyphs are the Maya equivalents of “2”, “0”, “1”, and “8”. We’ve dealt with the number 8 above and the numerals for 1 and 2 are fairly straight forward: one dot for the number “1”, two dots for the number “2”. The Maya were one of the few ancient civilisations that understood the concept of “zero” and they used a conch shell symbol to represent it, which can be seen in the screenshot above.

But you may be wondering, how did the Maya count? How did they write down calendar dates? And what’s the deal with their base-20 (“vigesimal”) numeral system?

Well, since I absolutely abhor mathematics and can’t work with numbers to save my life, I’ve personally sought out some of the best free, online resources to help you make sense of Maya numerals!

Maya Numbers and the Maya Calendar: A Non-Technical Introduction to Maya Glyphs – FAMSI

This handy PDF guide was created by Mark Pitts for the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) and is a perfect introduction for academics and non-academics alike.

The guide uses plenty of examples to help readers understand Maya mathematics and the complexities of the Maya calendar system, which consisted of three cycles: the 260-day Tzolk’in, the 365-day Haab’, and the Long Count.

Maya Numerals and Mathematics – Maya Archaeologist

If you’re looking for something a little less comprehensive, this brief guide to Maya numerals and mathematics is just what you’re looking for.

Created by Diane Davies, one of the few British archaeologists with a background in Maya archaeology, this guide is one of the Key Stage 2 educational resources available via her site.

Maya Math Game – Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Last but not least, if you’re looking for a fun way to test your newfound knowledge of Maya numbers, you can do so with this simple Maya maths game, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, one of the world’s leading museums and research centres for Pre-Columbian cultures.


However, if numbers just aren’t your thing and you’d rather invest that time and effort in learning how to read classical Maya texts, check out my article “5 Fantastic Free Resources for Learning Maya Glyphs”.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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