Introduction: what is an ushnu?

Inca ushnu

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.

In the Museum

In the Museum

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

 

A History of the World

Inca gold llama

A small figurine of the kind offered at ushnus is among the 100 objects featuring in the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series