University of Nottingham

Inca ushnus: landscape, site and symbol in the Andes

Project outline

Examining Inca stone platforms known as ushnus, this trans-disciplinary project addressed the Inca Empire's use of the Andean landscape in building the largest native state in the Americas (c. AD 1400-1532). A stage from which the Inca king and lords ruled over festivals and ceremonial events, ushnus formed a focal point in Inca political and sacred geography. Focusing on the hinterland surrounding Vilcashuáman, which once lay at the geographical centre of the Inca Empire in the Peruvian Central Highlands, the study aimed to understand the principles behind the construction and placement of ushnus, their function within the landscape, and their associated activities and artefacts.

Inca platform at Huanucopampa Ushnu at Huanucopampa


This collaborative and trans-disciplinary project has made a substantial and original contribution to current theorising and practice in landscape studies within the framework of a non-western cosmology. Its research findings have also increased our specific understanding of Inca culture and how they conquered the Andes to become one of the world’s most successful civilisations. In doing so, the project has arguably proven the potential for combining social science, physical science and historical research methods in understanding natural and cultural landscapes. Specific outcomes of the project include: conferences in Lima, Peru (2008), and the British Museum (November 2010); an edited book (2014); a new display on Andean civilisation at the British Museum; a project website hosted by the British Museum (still live as of December 2013).

Working with Peruvian collaborators, the project team studied 30 ushnus over a series of field seasons, using methods from the fields of archaeology, geoarchaeology, and cultural geography. Examination of the British Museum's Andean collections enabled further understanding and contributed to innovative ways of contextualising and understanding Inca collections, culminating in a new display case in the Wellcome Gallery at the British Museum devoted to Andean civilization (attracting an audience of 200,000). Complimentary ethnohistorical and ethnographic research has revealed information about the cultural meanings placed on ushnus and mountain peaks visible from them.

The ushnu of Incapirqa Waminan produced one of the most evocative finds of the project. At the base of a very narrow, deep and steep sided shaft, was a circular cut, which had been carved into the underlying bedrock. Positioned here was a group of three carved conically shaped rocks, placed in a tripod configuration, with their tips resting against one another. Two were sculpted in red andesite, and the third was of a white variety. Key ethno-historic sources link stones of the size and shape found here with one of the principal functions of ushnu platforms, their role in Inca sun worship. The discovery of further examples has confirmed a widespread use and association of this type of conical stones with ushnu platforms. Research into the 'soundscapes' (speech and music) associated with the ushnu platforms has shown that some of the sites were planned to maximise effective sound levels across large public spaces. GIS analysis has shown that these platforms generally command prominent views of the surrounding landscape, in particular clear visibilty of the snow-clad peaks that were worshiped as mountain deities.

Ongoing influence

From the outset, the research project team acknowledged the importance of public dissemination of the research, it being their intention to explain the process of research, ensure that participating communities in Peru benefit from their involvement, and provide a unique visual experience of the ushnus. This has been completed through the development of the project webpages on the British Museum site, the publication of articles in the British Museum Magazine which reaches a worldwide audience, the new display case at the British Museum, and a portable display in Peru which plays an essential role in validating traditional belief and practice among the rural populace, affirming a sense of identity and pride in local knowledge and lore. Collaboration with the British Museum continues to play a key role in actively engaging and educating the public in the research process and outcomes.

Three new research projects involving continued collaboration between Royal Holloway (University of London), the British Museum and the University of Huamanga (Ayacucho, Peru) have been developed. These involve further excavations, the analysis of stable isotopes, and a pilot project to reconstruct Lake Holocene climate change from terrestrial sedimentary sequences in the Ayacucho region.

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (38 months)

Principal Investigator:
Dr Nicholas Branch

Higher Education Institution:
Department of Archaeology, University of Reading

Project team:
  • Professor Rob Kemp, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London (Co-I)
  • Dr Colin McEwan, British Museum (Co-I)
  • Dr Katie Willis, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London (Co-I)
  • Dr Frank Meddens, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London (Co-I)

Selected publications

Publications include a peer review journal article and an edited book:

Meddens, F., Willis, K., McEwan, C. and Branch, N. (eds), (2014). Inca Ushnus: Landscape, Site and Symbol in the Andes. (Archetype Publications).

Meddens, F.M., McEwan, C., and Vivanco Pomacanchari, C. (2010). Inca 'stone ancestors' in context at a high altitude ushnu platform. Latin American Antiquity. 21(2).


Project partner

 British Museum

Related links


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071