found a book full of lines, dots, and mysterious-looking pictures, how
would you begin to figure out what they meant? That was the problem
facing archeologists who discovered written records left by the Maya.
Mayan writings still exist, as many of them were destroyed by Spanish
conquistadores. The writings that do exist represent a number of different
languages and a writing system that used glyphs, or pictures, to represent
words and syllables.
developed a sophisticated number system that they used to record possessions,
dates, and astronomical observations. In this activity, you'll begin
to decode the number system as it's written in a document known as the
Grade 5 and up
National Standards Addressed
History and Nature of Science: History of Science
History and Nature of Science: Historical Perspectives
• Principles and Standards for School Mathematics
Numbers and Operations
Numerical bases, number systems
Learn about number bases
From NRICH, University of Cambridge
From the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Univeristy of Regina
• Ask someone who speaks a different language from your own to
write something down for you. How different is her or his language from
your own? Does it have a different alphabet or special marks around
letters or words? What direction do you read it in? What other similarities
and differences do you see?
ancient writings, including Mayan ones, use glyphs, or pictures, that
stand for words. If you were to invent such a writing system, what picture
would you use for "hand"? How about "apple"? What
kind of picture would you use for "color" or "sour"
or "comfortable"? What is different about representing words
like these last three?
What systems do we use in the modern world to convey numerical ideas?
If a Mayan person were to look at a checkbook ledger, what clues might
they see to help them figure out our number system?
• Computers operate on a base 2 number system, rather than on
the base 10 system we use for most other things. You can learn more
about the base 2, or binary, number system from this website from Grinnell
this posting on MathForum.org: