Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Reading the Calendar Glyphs

Aj K’uh Na: Scribal Office
The Maya developed a writing system with hieroglyphs, a combination of whole-word symbols and syllables. Their script contains approximately 800 signs or glyphs. In order to decipher and understand the meanings of the hieroglyphs, the signs need to be matched to the language encoded in the script. The "voice" of Maya hieroglyphs is rooted in three spoken Mayan languages: Yucatec, Ch’olan, and Ch’orti’. Since the 1950s, scholars from all over the world have been able to decipher and read a large portion of the Maya hieroglyphs. These hieroglyphs are found carved in stone at archaeological sites, painted on ceramic vases, and painted on paper in accordion-shaped books called codices. Use this interactive tool to “read” the glyphs from stone carvings related to the Maya calendar.
"Our spoken language and our glyphs are our identity. More and more, Maya people are interested in understanding our history that is recorded in the glyphs. Understanding implies engagement, respect, and appreciation of the legacy of our ancestors."
Antonio Cuxil, Kaqchikel, Cultural Guide and Epigrapher

Stela C of Quiriguá

Standing more than 12 feet (4 meters) high, Stela C in the ancient Maya city of Quiriguá in Guatemala is an impressive monument. This "stone tree" preserves one of the most complete narratives of the creation story of the Maya.

Maya Glyphs are read in paired columns, from left to right and top to bottom. Epigraphers or experts who decipher the meaning of Maya glyphs first transcribe the Maya text, writing the sounds as they would be heard by a Maya speaker. Then, they translate the text to English and other languages.

Instructions for Interactive: Click on the individual glyphs in the Stela C representation to learn more. To read the complete story written on the stela, click on the link at the bottom of the interactive.

* Hieroglyphs were deciphered by Dr. Erik Velásquez of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Learn More about Calendar Glyphs

Monument 6 of Tortuguero, Tasbasco, México

Monument 6 is a stone carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions and Maya calendar dates.

Reading Maya Hieroglyphs

Carol Karasik, epigrapher, reads a few Maya hieroglyphs inside the Temple of the Inscriptions in the archaeological site of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.

Download PDF transcript of video »