The Calligraphic Zero

One of the many interesting details revealed in the small glyphic notations discovered at Xultun (Saturno, Stuart, Aveni, and Rossi 2012) are the unusual simple forms of “zero” that appear in several LC records. In Classic-era texts, zeroes have traditionally been recognized in one of three forms (see Figure 1): (a) the common three-pedal form that resembles a darkened flower; (b) the “shell-hand,” or (c) the head-variant showing a human profile with a hand or bony snake as its lower jaw (Figure 1, a-c). All of these can be phonetically read as the syllable mi (see Grube and Nahm 1990) or perhaps as the logogram MIH. As word signs these would correspond to to root mih and its cognates, widespread in Mayan languages with the meaning of “nothing” (see Blume 2011 for a thorough overview of zero signs in Maya script).

Figure 1. Three variants of syllabic mi or logographic MIH, “zero.” (Sketch by D. Stuart)

The small notations on the walls of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun now show a lesser known form – a simple oblong oval sign with a small interior circle and borderline along its upper edge (six instances are shown in Figure 2).

Figure 2. Number array from north wall of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala. Note the oval “zero” signs in each column. (Preliminary drawing by D. Stuart, Proyecto Regional San Bartolo-Xultun)

This is a more informal zero probably reserved for mathematical computations and notations in manuscripts, and the sort of thing that was seldom known before the discovery of the Xultun mural. The only other example I know is from the string of numerals written on an AN or AHN logogram on Pomona Panel 7, now in the Dallas Museum of Art (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. a-AN glyph from Pomona Panel 7. Note the simplified zero at the lower right, in the sequence 1.7.0. (Photograph by David Stuart)

It’s likely that this oval form was simplified from the common three-pedal variant illustrated in Figure 1a, with the darkened outer areas omitted and the circular “core” preserved. This Classic calligraphic zero is presumably the origin for the oblong forms of used in the Post-Classic Dresden Codex, nearly always described as a representation shell. However, those zeroes in the Dresden are not quite identical, usually showing a more pointed outline on its two ends (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Zero signs (in red) from page 43b of the Dresden Codex.

Regarding the forms of the Xultun zeroes, one alternative I’ve considered is that they are calligraphic variants of the very similar-looking logogram read PET, a sign deciphered many years ago by Nikolai Grube. This root, meaning “circular” in proto-Ch’olan, appears in a variety of settings in the inscriptions, such as PET-ne, peten, “island,” or the verb written PET-ta-ja, pet-aj, “become round” or “be encircled.” It is interesting to note that in the Calepino Motul dictionary of colonial Yucatec, pet is the basis of a derived noun petel meaning “totality” or “grouping.” Conceivably this might be an appropriate marker for a number position that has reached its “totality.” However, I prefer for now to see the Xultun zeroes simply as calligraphic forms, derived from the more complex and familiar sign of the stone inscriptions.


Blume, Anna. 2011. Maya Concepts of Zero. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 155, no. 1., pp. 51-88.

Grube, Nikolai, and Werner Nahm. A Sign for the Syllable mi. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 33. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

Saturno, William, David Stuart, Anthony Aveni and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala. Science, vol. 336 no. 6082, pp. 714-717.

One thought on “The Calligraphic Zero

  1. Anna Blume June 16, 2012 / 10:17 PM

    Dear David,

    I too have been looking at the calligraphic zero forms ever since your Xultun post and Science article. In addition to being a possible stylization of the tree-pedal zero sign, they also may be simplified from the circular form in the “shell in hand” glyph.

    When we compare the “shell in hand” zero to a zero from Xultun, both are circular in form with an inner upper border and an element in the center. With the “shell in hand” zero, the central element is scroll-like rather than the circular dot drawn at Xultun. If we accept the “shell and hand” reading for inscription variations of 0, then the Xultun form may be a further stylization of this shell form. Whatever our understanding of the Xultun zero form, I do think we are seeing a synchronic process of abstraction or simplification as scribes moved from notations on stone to notions within a mural, implying that the variation in form is due to the different media from stone carving to wall drawing. In the inscriptions, the zero are more iconic especially compared to the paired down dot and bar for 1 and 5, while at Xultun, all three numerical notations for 1, 5, and 0 are all equally abstract.

    As to the Dresden zeros, there is evidence within the Dresden itself that Maya scribes drew them in the shape of oliva shells especially when we see identical shapes floating in seascapes at the upper left corner along with other shell-encrusted gastropods on page 67. This leads me to think that the Xultun zeros may meaningfully have affinity with both the three-pedal and shell variations.

    Best to you,