Bak’tuns and More Bak’tuns 23

by David Stuart

As many know, the upcoming completion of the 13th bak’tun on December 21 is represented in the Maya Long Count as 13.0.0.0.0. It’s an important day in the Maya calendar, to be sure, but not the End of Times of course. The Maya never once said anything of the kind. Nor is the approaching day even the end of the bak’tun cycle, as it has often been described — that idea comes from an old and outdated conceptualization of Maya time. Here I’d like to explain a bit of the actual structure of the bak’tun calendar as we presently understand it, summarizing the work of a number of scholars as well as a few points I made in my 2011 book The Order of Days.

This upcoming 13.0.0.0.0 date is a repetition of the “base” of the system which fell in 3114 BCE, also represented as 13.0.0.0.0. Back then, the subsequent bak’tun number was re-set as 1 (1.0.0.0.0) and thereafter their count progressed forward until the reappearance of 13 bak’tuns on December 21 of this year. This repetition of 13s has led some to suppose that a similar re-set of the bak’tun system is upon us now, and that we are destined to go back to 1.0.0.0.0 in some 400 years from now. This is not true. Based on texts from Palenque that project calendar stations far into the future, we know there will be a linear sequence of bak’tuns from here on, represented as 14.0.0.0.0, 15.0.0.0.0, and so on. This will run forward still until 19.0.0.0.0, about 2,400 years from now.

Here’s an illustration of the sequence of bak’tuns just described:

1.0.0.0.0
2.0.0.0.0
3.0.0.0.0
4.0.0.0.0
5.0.0.0.0
6.0.0.0.0
7.0.0.0.0
8.0.0.0.0
9.0.0.0.0
10.0.0.0.0
11.0.0.0.0
12.0.0.0.0
13.0.0.0.0 August 13, 3114 BCE
1.0.0.0.0
2.0.0.0.0
3.0.0.0.0
4.0.0.0.0
5.0.0.0.0
6.0.0.0.0
7.0.0.0.0
8.0.0.0.0
9.0.0.0.0
10.0.0.0.0
11.0.0.0.0
12.0.0.0.0
13.0.0.0.0 December 21, 2012
14.0.0.0.0
15.0.0.0.0
16.0.0.0.0
17.0.0.0.0
18.0.0.0.0
19.0.0.0.0
1.0.0.0.0.0 October 13, 4772

Notice that at the end of this roughly 13,000-year span that the bak’tun changes to 0 and the next higher period, the piktun, turns over as 1. As it happens, the piktun unit before this date was set at 13, although this is left unwritten in the dates above. (Mayanists have long tended to just write five numbers of the Long Count, following the convention of the ancient Maya scribes themselves. But we know that this is a truncated representation, and that there were many more cycles above bak’tun and piktun. The full system I call the “Grand Long Count” encompassed 24 units!)

People often ask me why 13 was chosen as the re-set point for the bak’tun in 3114 BC. Why restart everything at that point? The way I see it, it’s all about two key numbers in Maya math, 13 and 20. For the Maya, both 13 and 20 were seen as key factors in a larger mathematical system, especially with regard to time. The most simple and fundamental calendar unit was a 260-day cycle (13 x 20 days), widely known as the tzolk’in, that was used for divination and had widespread use even among the general populous — one reason why it still holds importance among some Maya today and the Long Count does not. This 260-day span is about equivalent to nine months in our reckoning, the period of human gestation, and the modern Maya of highland Guatemala who still use the 260-day calendar are adamant that it’s specifically tied to the biological clock of human conception and birth. 13 thus emerges automatically as a key factor — and a sacred number — since 20 is simply the basis of the entire vigesimal (base 20) counting system found throughout Mesoamerica. Beyond this, 13 came to be widely applied to other temporal spans and cosmological structures. In fact, the interplay of the two key numbers 13 and 20 turns out to be the basis of other time structures they developed, including the Long Count.

We see this in the list of bak’tuns above, which is comprised of a sequence of 13 bak’tuns followed by 20 bak’uns — i.e., the same two key numbers of Maya time reckoning. So, the bak’tun calendar as I’ve described it shows how these two all-important numbers could relate to one another in another way, now on much bigger temporal scale.

It’s an elegant system, designed to reflect a deep cosmic structure that’s at once cyclical and lineal, as well as mythical and historical. In this way I hope we can appreciate the bak’tun we’re about to enter is a continuation of a time reckoning system that’s been in place for a long time, and that still has a long way to go.

23 comments

  1. I still have questions as to why the maya stopped at 13 bak’tuns in 3114 bc but why are they continuing to 14 and on through 19 bak’tuns now. Are there carvings of dates with 14 or greater bak’tuns. I know they referred to dates far in their future but how did they write them?

  2. What texts from Palenque are you refering to? Is there any academic paper about this? The FAMSI website says the calendar “resets” at 13 Baktuns. I also heard that the “Choltun”, or long count calendar, runs in series of 13 Baktuns (this was at Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala, by an organization of Maya scholars from the University).

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  4. Hi John

    I think David (who will please correct me if I am wrong) is referring to the ancient legend of God giving the Mayan ancestors 13 and then another 7 day period of time to observe. He has enlarged this creation account to fit one grand cycle (in his opinion).

    I think that David or someone else could recommend a basic book to you on how to read the Long Count number’s that have been found, but it will take a day or so for you to understand how they counted in an elementary way. I have a great one, but it is a little dated.

    Here’s an interesting thought, what do Mayan scholars do before this Greatly anticipated Mayan date December 21 2012? They engage in scholasticism of course! Except for some of those who are down in the Mayan areas, those who hope to experience the change in a religious or ceremonial way!

    -Bret

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  6. To answer some of the questions posted here, we know that the future bak’tuns run 14, 15, etc. up to 19 because of a text at Palenque, in a panel in the Temple of the Inscriptions. It is widely known to Mayanists, and the dates in that text were worked out decades ago. The inscription gives us a precise time interval from a historical date to the future end of 1 piktun, or 1.0.0.0.0.0. This mathematically necessitates a continuation of the current bak’tun count as described in the blog. I realize it is a bit strange to have these extended periods of 13 + 20 units, but there’s no doubt this is how the bak’tuns are sequenced. My recent book The Order of Days attempts to explain some of this, but I will be the first to admit that chapter is pretty dense and obtuse in places — just the nature of the material. This blog entry was actually an attempt to explain the system a bit more clearly.

    In sum, the Maya calendar will keep going for a long, long time. All of the “end of the baktun count” crap has been pushed by people who don’t know the sources.

    I haven’t yet checked the statement on the FAMSI website mentioned in one of the comments, but if it states that the bak’tun resets to 1 again after the current 13.0.0.0.0 date (tomorrow!) then it’s simply wrong.

  7. Mr. Stuart
    Thanks for your explanation about the sequence of bak’tuns. I´m Mexican and I live in Merida Yucatán Mexico, in this moment is rainning and tomorrow the sun will shine and the celebrations in this city will leave a messsage for the world ” the Maya calendar will keep going for a long, long time” as you said.
    Thanks again
    Merry Christmas

  8. I don’ t understand why there are two cycles of 13 followed by an addendum (of 7) to 20. I don’t understand the “periodicity”, but confess my background is chemistry. Or, is it a cycle of 13 followed by a cycle of 20, so that the sequence is 13 – 20 – 13 – 20? Is the bak ‘tun the cycle of 13, and the piktun is the following cycle of 20? I also don’t understand the “Grand Long Count” of 24 units. I don’t see a cycle of 24 in the above.

    • It is a sequence of 13 bak’tuns followed by a sequence of 20 bak’tuns. Together these make up the current piktun. I suspect that the current piktun is part of a similar extended sequence of those periods, since we know that its number similarly goes from 13 (where we are now) to 1, far in our future.

  9. Hi David,

    I’m a Canadian with a B&B in Merida, Yucatan called In Ka’an http://www.facebook.com/inkaanbedandbreakfast. Just wanted to thank you for your posts, they’re very informative and we’ve already shared you a couple of times on our new Facebook page. We’d very much like to link up with you on there, if you’d like to leave your FB address on our page, that would be great (seems I can’t do it from here?) and we’ll be in touch with.
    Keep posting!
    Thanks again

    Bonnie (In Ka’an Bed and Breakfast)
    http://www.inkaan.com/bedandbreakfast.htm

  10. Hello Dr. Stuart,

    I am from Honduras and I just ordered two copies of your book one for me and another from my dad. I look forward on reading it! I congratulate you on your work along with many of the other Mayanist uncovering the past.

  11. Really interesting article! Thanks for the elucidation.
    My question: is it random coincidence that the pik tun cycle of 13,000 years coincides with 1/2 of a cycle of the precession of the equinoxes? I know the wormhole that pseudo scientists will often dive into regarding galactic alignment and other B.S., I was just wondering how these two cycles correlated, if at all.
    Thanks.

    • My guess is that it’s a coincidence. The only cycles of the Long Count that are directly tied to an astronomical phenomenon is the day, of course, and the “vague year” of 360 days, which isn’t very astronomical.

    • Of course people believe what they choose to believe. However, my own understanding of Mr. Tah’s philosophy and teachings shows little deep connection to what scholars know of ancient Maya religion. He’s a modern spiritualist, I’m not.

  12. My wife and I went out to Mixco Viejo for the calender/solar cycle event, an enjoyable event it was. A little tense for me but no trouble between the Army and the Maya, the army brought 300 or so of their numbers to keep things safe-or so they said. The message from the Maya clergy was one of peace and getting along with each other. They erected a new monument, unveiled it as the sun was coming up, used polymer based material for the glyphs. The army presence was discerning; there was no drinking, fireworks, the normal carrying on that our Maya friends are so fond of, yet in the end the message was PEACE. Reporting from the Guate highlands, norm kwallek .

  13. Thanks from Guatemala for the illuminating post.
    The Wikipedia article on the solar year Haab’ or ha’b says something whose reliability I would like you to assess. It is relevant to the question whether the ancient Maya knew that the recent bak’tun ending would coincide with a solstice, even though, as CBC News has quoted you as saying, “other bak’tun endings don’t really fall on important astronomical dates”. What Wikipedia says is the following:
    “Inscriptions on The Temple of the Cross at Palenque show clearly that the Maya were aware of the true length of the year, even though they did not employ the use of leap days in their system of calculations generally. J. Eric Thompson wrote that the Maya knew of the drift between the Haab’ and the solar year and that they made ‘calculations as to the rate at which the error accumulated, but these were merely noted as corrections; they were not used to change the calendar.’ There are at least two inscriptions with periods of 1508 Haab’ from Palenque, which equates to 1507 tropical years, or 550420 days. This gives the Maya approximation to the tropical year at being 365.2422 days, being more accurate than the Gregorian Year currently used across the world. 1508 Haab’ also incorporate 29 full Calendar Rounds, and two codices, the Codex Laud and Codex Mexicanus, also record the 1508 Haab’ intervals.”.
    I would very much appreciate it for you to weigh in. Thanks again.

  14. If I may, two more questions, Professor Stuart, and I’m done.

    Last December the Long Count seems to have reached the date 13.0.0.0.0. Going back thirteen bak’tuns (some 5125 years to the past: to the year 3114 BC), we also seem to get 13.0.0.0.0, not 0.0.0.0.0. My penultimate question is: If we go back thirteen more bak’tuns (some 5125 years more to the past: to the year 8239 BC), this time do we really get 0.0.0.0.0, that is:

    13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.0.0.0.0.0 (nineteen thirteens and five zeros),
    or do we also get instead 13.0.0.0.0, that is:
    13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.13.0.0.0.0 (twenty thirteens and four zeros),

    as we did in 3114 BC and in 2012 AD?

    And one last question: Is it probable that the full Long Count encompassed not just 24 units, but more units, perhaps infinitely many units, and that they were always omitted in the same way that the nineteen units before the bak’tun position were usually omitted? After all, Thompson did write (in page 316 of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, a book that contains, as you said in an interview, “brilliant descriptions of the Maya calendar and the mechanisms of the calendar that really can’t be beat even to this day”), concerning certain stelae at Quirigua, the following: “I feel reasonably confident that when these stelae came to be erected at Quirigua, the Maya priest-astronomers had accepted the idea that time had no beginning”. Your thoughts would once again be very much appreciated.

  15. Hello, Professor Stuart.
    Some final comments:
    1. Contra the Wikipedia article on the ha’b, it is far from transparent with how much accuracy the ancient Maya knew the length of the tropical year. So, there is little reason, if any, to think that they anticipated that our bak’tun change would fall (if in fact it did) on a solstice day. On the contrary, I now see that there is every reason to agree with you that it was a complete coincidence that the said bak’tun ending was the day of the winter solstice, if indeed the (modified) GMT correlation is correct.
    2. As becomes clear from the explanations in your book, if we go back thirteen bak’tuns from the year 3114 BC to the year 8239 BC, we get 0.0.0.0.0 (preceded by a string of thirteens) and not 13.0.0.0.0.
    3. It does seem probable to me that the full Long Count encompassed infinitely many units, not just 24, and that Coba’s Grand Long Count inscriptions are as incomplete as the Yaxchilan step inscription, which you illuminatingly describe in your book and which “only” includes eight thirteens above the bak’tun.
    4. In this post, you correlate 13.0.0.0.0 with August 13, 3114 BC. Unfortunately, this is inconsistent with the (modified) GMT correlation (584,283), which you consistently if tentatively seem to follow in your book and indeed in the rest of this post. The correlation according to which December 21, 2012, was 13.0.0.0.0, and according to which October 13, 4772, will be 1.0.0.0.0.0, implies that it wasn’t August 13 but August 11 (3114 BC) that was the proleptic Gregorian equivalent of 13.0.0.0.0. I repeat that no such inconsistency seems to be found in your book, where you consistently but of course not dogmatically correlate 13.0.0.0.0 with August 11.
    5. I find it exciting and impressive how much progress has been made, by you and other scholars, in understanding ancient Maya inscriptions in general and the Long Count in particular. And for that, as a Guatemalan citizen, I am grateful.

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