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A platform for the Incas

November 22nd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

After all the excitement of the Poetry Festival, am now off to a series of gatherings of a very different sort:  a conference at the British Museum on Peruvian ushnus, the raised platform structures often found in the centre of Inca plazas or on hill tops.

This may seem a slightly esoteric subject, but the ushnus are both at the centre of the Inca world and yet surprisingly little understood.  As one of the speakers plaintively noted, the Spanish chroniclers of the time did little to describe them.


One thing is immediately apparent: Andeanists, like poets and indeed like Incas, tend to celebrate their gatherings with many libations – at a party held by the Peruvian ambassador, the pisco sours were flowing freely and only copious amounts of black coffee provided by the British Museum allowed attendees to focus on the complex astronomical siting of the ushnus, which at sites like Huánaco Pampa are aligned to solstice and equinox risings of the sun.

My own interest comes from work we have carried out at Llactapata, with on-site help from Tom Zuidema (the keynote speaker at this conference),  which has buildings which are similarly aligned to the sunrises of both solstices – see The full report on the expedition.  There is also a large ushnu-style raised platform structure measuring some 60 feet by 40 feet, enclosed by a five feet high retaining wall – which like almost everything else to do with ushnus needs more investigation, but is the only known ushnu from which Machu Picchu is clearly visible.  With an alignment of 110 degrees, the platform is orientated almost dead on the December solstice line for the rising sun. 

The most fascinating element of the various talks was the revelation that it seems some of the soil used as infill for ushnus may have been transported a considerable distance – the idea that the Incas believed in the transportation of the powers of other sacred landscapes is confirmed by chroniclers and by modern practices at festivals like Qoyllurit’i, where crosses are blessed with the power of the local apus before being carried back to their host communities (see my Piece for The Guardian on Qoyllurit’i:  Festive spirits ). 

Research on the soil analysis is at a very early and partial stage indeed – but it’s an intriguing prospect, and of course a question that would only have been asked quite recently, let alone solved.  Reminds me of recent work at Silbury Hill which despite having been excavated several times over the last century has only just been revealed to have included similar non-local infill,  with boulders brought a a considerably distance, presumably again for ritual purposes.  No one had ever bothered to analyse the infill before. 

At  the very final session yesterday on Sunday, Warwick Bray made some amusing comments in his summing up about how he’d been told two things in life when he had started off in archaeology: be careful about drinking too much bad Beaujolais, and if in doubt and you don’t understand the phenomenon, label it as ‘ritual’. 

He also asked the relevant question – to what extent is every platform structure an ushnu, with the ‘ritual’ connotations associated with that word? – there does seem a qualitative difference between the ones centred in the middle of plazas and those isolated ones on mountain tops. 

As so often in the Inca world, it’s a reminder of how little we know and of how much still remains to explore……. 

It is also commendable of the British Museum to have hosted the conference, and of the energy of Colin McEwan, the curator of their South American collections.  All the more reason for him to be given the opportunity to spread himself over the long anticipated – and demanded  – gallery dedicated to Andean cultures, the need for which  I’ve blogged about before.

  1. H
    September 7th, 2011 at 02:26 | #1

    Llactapatapi illariy / Dawn at Llactapata

    I was rereading Cochineal’s last pages, our narrator/explorer-guide enjoying the night turning day above the Aobamba Canyon:
    “There was something magical… in the grey light of pre-dawn… moon still visible… Salkantay already gleaming pink from the first sun…”.

    Quechua has a precise term depicting this kind of light. Jose Maria Arguedas explains:

    “The suffix illa is the diffusion of nonsolar light. Killa is the moon, and illapa the ray. Illariy names the dawn light which streams out over the edge of the world just before the sun appears. Illa is not the term for fixed light, like the resplendent, supernatural light of the sun. It represents a lesser light -a radiance, the lightning flash, all light that vibrates. Those kinds of light, only semi-divine, which the old men of Peru still believe to be intimately related to the blood and to all kinds of shinning matter.” (Taken from Horning’s translation, Deep Rivers).

    I guess there is indeed something magical about it, so much that can’t be stated in Spanish or English, but it can be grasped at Llactapata. It is thus remarkable to see how Literature con aid in giving sense to exploration/encounter. As Dr. Hemming states ‘Anyone can find a ruin… but it can take a lifetime to understand what you have found’. Rest assured Llactapata was the place to vividly enjoy illariy.

  2. admin
    September 7th, 2011 at 09:51 | #2

    Fascinating – thanks so much for this – Jose Maria Arguedas is a constant source of inspiration – Hugh

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