Introduction: what is an ushnu?

Project team

  • Nick Branch, Senior Lecturer in Palaeoecology, School of Human and Environmental Sciences, University of Reading (01/01/2007 - 26/02/2010) 
  • Francisco Ferreira, PhD student, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway
    University of London (01/01/2007 - 01/01/2010)
  • Millena Frouin, Post doctoral research assistant, Department of Geography,
    Royal Holloway University of London (19/03/2007 - 28/02/2009)
  • Rob Kemp, Professor, Physical Geography, Department of Geography,
    Royal Holloway University of London (01/01/2007 - 26/02/2010)
  • Colin McEwan, Head of the Americas section and curator of Latin American collections, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum, London (01/01/2007 - 26/02/2010)
  • Frank Meddens, Honorary Research Associate, Department of Geography,
    Royal Holloway University of London (01/01/2007 - 26/02/2010)
  • Gabriel Ramon, Post-doctoral research assistant, British Museum, London
    (01/04/2008 - 26/02/2010)
  • Cirilo Vivanco, Professor of Archaeology, National University of San Cristóbal of Huamanga, Peru
  • Katie Willis, Reader, Development Geography, Department of Geography,
    Royal Holloway University of London (01/01/2007 - 26/02/2010)


  • University of Reading
  • Royal Holloway University of London
  • Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council

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The Inca capital Cusco and principal outlying towns of the Inca Empire were organised around a public plaza with a specially-constructed platform placed facing a designated sacred central space called the ushnu. This sacred space was marked by a vertical opening into the body of the earth into which liquid and other offerings were made.

The ushnu platform was therefore a kind of stage from which the Inca king and his lords could observe and rule over an annual round of seasonal festivals and ceremonial events.

In the late 1990s archaeologists in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina began mapping the full system of Inca roads, including many of the less accessible, secondary trails at high altitude. In Peru this survey soon revealed a previously unrecognised category of stone platform with typically distinctive Inca stonework. These structures are carefully positioned on isolated mountain-tops 4000–4800 metres above sea level and represent some of the highest dressed-stone architecture found anywhere in the Americas, and possibly in the world. These structures were clearly important in Inca political and sacred geography and had profound symbolic significance.

The sites were selected to command unsurpassed views of the snow-capped mountain peaks, worshipped as wamanis, or mountain deities, by the local communities. In this way local deities were incorporated into the overarching Inca state religion. The Incas used the platforms as potent symbols of religious and political authority. They served as an innovative and powerful new instrument of statecraft in order both to defne and proclaim their growing imperial hegemony.

Further information

The British Museum holds one of the most significant Inca collections outside of Peru and this project has enabled renewed study of the collection

In the Museum 

A History of the World 

Inca ushnu

Inca ushnu.