Mayan Stela

Date: 700
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Artifacts


This eighth-century Mayan stele, photographed here by some early twentieth century explorers from the United States, is located in Quirigua, a once thriving city in present day Guatemala. The front of this stele has a carving of a Classical era Mayan king, but its most fascinating aspect is the sequence of glyphs on its side. Quirigua's steles are renowned for their "Long Count" inscriptions, which are a series of glyphs containing precise calendrical dates for the past as well as future events.

Because civil time was reckoned in cycles of fifty-two "vague" (365.2420 day) years, it was necessary for them to create a chronology that existed outside of this period in order to record time over the very long term. Thus Long Counts are often found on monuments like this that were meant to record significant dates for posterity. Other steles at Quirigua include dates from eras that could not have possibly been known to the Maya, including one from 400 million years ago. Yet the calendrical dates given for these mythic times were (and are) precise, another testament to the abilities of Mesoamerican cosmographers to observe and calculate the passage of time.

The long count dates are told in a series of glyphs like the ones seen on the left-hand side of this stele. To calculate the date, these glyphs are read from the top down and from left to right. At the top is an introductory glyph that relates the year and the god associated with the twenty-day month that that glyph records. Below this are listed the date's count within various multi-day cycles: the baktuns of 144,000 days, katuns of 7,200 days, tuns of 360 days, uinals of 20 days, and, finally, the days, or kins (there are 20 kins per uinal). The Long Count date is then achieved by taking the sum of these counts, a time equal to the total number of days passed since the beginning of the last Great Cycle. These were periods of 374,440 years (or, in Mayan reckoning, 13 baktuns), the length of time necessary for every single permutation of the long count system to be realized once and only once.

Reference: Leon-Portilla, Miguel. Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya. Second Edition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press: 1988.

CITATION: Guatemala, Quirigua. [Between 1908-1919]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-F81-2705 [P&P].