Maya Date

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Maya Date IconI’ve always found the Mayan writing system to be beautiful and fascinating. They wrote with rich, complicated glyphs that were beautiful, evocative, and often witty. Much of the historical record we have of this writing comes in the form of stone carvings. Of course, carving something in stone is both difficult and time-consuming, so these carvers took lots of design liberties during the process, infusing their work with their own personal style.

As a result, there’s no single, fixed set of symbols, or glyphs, that make up Mayan. Rather, there are lots of different sets of glyphs. This is very much like our own Roman alphabet, which admits thousands of very different typefaces, yet the letters are almost always still recognizable as long as a few key shape elements are preserved.

Maya Date Screenshot I wanted to learn to write iPhone apps, and I thought it would be fun to make a program that showed the date in Mayan. I spent many happy afternoons at the Seattle and University of Washington libraries, poring over old books and documents about the Mayan calendar system. They actually had three different calendars, each of different lengths, all running simultaneously but independently. The whole thing is complicated but very cool. There are many details that are hotly debated about these calendars, even including just how they count!

I designed and drew a new set of original glyphs, strongly informed by the historical record, and wrote my app. On the right is a screenshot of the output for a specific date. Using the other screens, you can dial in any date you want (using either our familiar Gregorian calendar, or the Mayan Long Count), and the program will show you the stele for that date, which you can then save or share with others. This stele is structured like the many stone carvings of dates that we’ve found, combining glyphs for months and numbers in a specific arrangement.

For each of the controversies I either chose the opinion most popular among the experts, or I let the user make their own choices. I called it Maya Date, and released it on the iTunes App Store. I figured it would sell maybe a dozen copies over its lifetime. To my surprise, about a thousand people have purchased it!

I provide more details about the app, including a ton of information on the Mayan calendar system, on the app’s home page. You can also buy it on iTunes.