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Breaking the Code: Mayan Math

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    The Exploratorium

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Breaking the Code: Mayan Math

This is a lesson plan for an activity in which learners, playing the role of archeologists, use math concepts about number bases to decipher the Dresden Codex, an ancient Mayan document. The lesson provides learners with historical background and exposure to how archeologists figure out what ancient documents mean. It also helps learners compare Mayan number systems (base 5) and modern number systems (base 10). It then leads them step-by-step through a series of activies to help break the code, with stopping points to discuss and investigate different ideas. In order to do this activity, learners should understand place value and number bases. Recommended for grade 5 and up.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
2 to 4 hours

Estimated Materials Cost:
1 cent - $1 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - adult

Resource Types:
Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan


Materials List (per group of students)


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Astronomy
    • Earth, Moon and Sun
      • Days
  • Mathematics
    • Algebra
      • Patterns
    • Data Analysis and Probability
      • Data Collection
      • Data Representation
    • Measurement
      • Units of Measurement
    • Number and Operations
      • Number Systems
    • Problem Solving
    • Representation
  • The Nature of Science

Informal Categories

  • Historical Reenactment


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read

Learning styles supported:

  • Links STEM to other topics of interest such as arts and humanities
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Components that are part of this resource:

Includes alignment to state and/or national standards

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


Source Collection:

  • Science After School Consumer's Guide


  • All Rights Reserved, Exploratorium, ©2002


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