The Incan Ushnu III - Provincial Ushnu

Unlike the Cuzco ushnu which was destroyed at an early date we are lucky that we have multiple examples of ushnu from provincial centres to study. This fact initially came as a surprise to me as when I read John Hemmings well known book on the Conquest of the Incas [Hemming 1974] he made a point of saying that only one ushnu survivied in Peru, that at Vilcashuasam. Fortunately this proved to be incorrect, as Hemming himself indirectly acknowledged with several references to other surviving ushnu when he published his book on 'Monuments of the Inca' in 1982 [Hemming and Ranney 1982].

It is questionable however whether any of the provincial ushnu that have survived into modern times are fully intact. Therefore like the previous post on the Cuzco ushnu I feel it is worthwhile reviewing the early information we have on provincial ushnu before examining the surviving structures. This will ensure we have correctly identified surviving structures as Incan ushnu, as well as providing information regarding the structures purpose and functions.

Unfortunately we have little source material to go on to establish when the first provincial ushnu was constructed. Two sources mention ushnu in connection with Huayna-Capac [Betanzos 1557 (1996), Cabello de Valboa 1586 (1980)] emperor from 1493 - 1528, but it is almost certain ushnu were being built before his reign. Considering provincial ushnu could only have been constructed when the Inca state expanded enough to include provinces (i.e. outside of the Cuzco basin and immediately surrounding valleys) a tentative start date would begin with the reign of the expansionist ninth Inca king Pachacuti (ca 1438), probably some decades after the construction of the Cuzco ushnu (based on Cieza de Leon attribution of the construction of the Cuzco ushnu to the seventh Inca king, Yahuar-Huacac).

The main reported functions of the provincial ushnu were as follows:
1. a seat or throne for the Inca [Albornoz 1582 (1990), Cieza de Leon 1553-4 (1976), Guaman Poma 1615 (1980), Betanzos 1557 (1996)] or an Incan governor [Cieza de Leon 1553-4 (1976)]
2. a location for sacrifices and offerings to the Sun [Cabello de Valboa 1586 (1980), Albornoz 1582 (1990), Carvajal 1586 (1982)]
3. a location for sacrifices and offerings for the Inca and his health [Betanzos 1557 (1996), Carvajal 1586]
4. a site where the Incan could be seen by and deal with provincial people [Betanzos 1557 (1996), Molina [1553 (1982), Carvajal 1586 (1982)]
5. a military review stand [Molina 1553 (1982)].
6. the ushnu is also defined as a stone and place of judgement by by the early Inka language dictionary of Gonzalez Holguin [1608 (1990)].

A further function has been proposed by the archaeologist Pino after studying several sites with surviving ushnu. He suggests some provincial ushnu may have been a location for making solar and stellar observations using sight lines from the ushnu in relation to neighbouring buildings during different times of the year [Pino 2005].

The ceremonial rites referred to as occurring at or on the ushnu often involved the drinking or pouring out of chicha beer [Albornoz 1582 (1990), Cabello de Valboa 1586 (1980), Betanzos 1557 (1996)]

Appearance and Location
Unfortunately there seems to be no single clear written description of the appearance of a provincial ushnu by an early author which specifically identifies the structure being described as an ushnu. All the written reports either only describe aspects of ushnu, or describe structures which sound like ushnu but are not identified as such. The best single source we have for identifying provincial ushnu are Guaman Pomas labeled drawings (if we include his one of the ‘Cuzco’ ushnu, which as I discussed in a previous post is likely based on his experience of a provincial example) - see below [Guaman Poma 1615 (1980)]. By using these as a starting point we can use the written descriptions we have to get a fuller idea of the appearance (and the functions discussed previously) of provincial ushnu.

Most of the reports that mention the location of the ushnu (or ushnu-like structures where they are not named) describe them as being located in the main square or plaza of Incan towns [Cabello de Valboa 1586 (1980), Albornoz 1582 (1990), Betanzos 1557 (1996), Molina 1553 (1982), Cieza de Leon 1553-4 (1976), Xerez 1534 (1968)]. Two accounts however are exceptions to this and require comment.

Albornoz [1582 (1980)] states ushnu were found ‘on royal roads’ as well as plazas. John Hyslop did a thorough, on the ground study of Incan roads, and reported 'no good candidates for roadside ushnu' [Hyslop 1990] so Albornoz is probably incorrect in this aspect of his description.

The second reference states ushnu were stone altars for sacrifices made at such places as 'mountains, ravines, rushing rivers, fountains or springs, ponds or deep lakes, caves, prominent rock outcrops, mountain peaks...' [Anom Jesuit ca. 1585 (1980) - these locations are what he described as 'natural temples' as opposed to 'artificial' temples, that had been built by man. However this author is considered questionable in terms of reliability by some researchers, and no other early author mentions ushnu in this context (all others who mention a location describe them as being in plazas, except Albornoz who adds royal roads). One modern authority [Gasparini and Margolies 1980] does accept the Anonymous Jesuits account, however the examples they provide of such ushnu (the Incas seat at Sacsahuaman, and the Intiwatana at Machu Picchu) do not easily fufil the Anonymous Jesuits criteria of being located next to natural features of importance and away from 'artifical temples', nor the other written descriptions we have of provincial ushnu.

Archaeologically provincial ushnu are found to be located both in the middle of plazas, and on their edge.

Appearance - Platform Component
A platform (or tower) component to provincial ushnu is described by two early authors [Albornoz 1582 (1990), Guaman Poma (1980)]. It is also implied by several others (who unfortunately do not use the term 'ushnu'). Some of these latter accounts also describe multiered platforms, and staircases as part of the structure [Betanzos 1557 (1996), Molina 1553 (1982), Carvajal (1982), Cieza de Leon 1553-4 (1976)].

One author describes the ushnu as a ‘fort’ in the middle of a settlement [Murua 1590 (1974)], and several others report fort-like structures in plazas which were probably ushnu [Xerez 1534 (1968)]. One of the reasons for the Spanish describing ushnu as forts is that they were built as isolated raised platforms in a towns plaza - probably appearing like small castle keeps or towers to the Spanish. Provincial ushnu often have walls that rise above the top platforms floor as well, which gives them a superficial similarity to a castle wall parapet (examples can be seen at Aypate, Huanuco Pampa and Shincal).

One author, Cieza de Leon, describes the ushnu as a 'golden osno stool' [(1553-54) 1976] and as a priviledge for the governor of Quito to sit on it. It may be that Cieza de Leon has conflated (or confused) the term for a stool with the ushnu - it is quite likely that when the Inca (or his governor) sat on the ushnu they sat on a stool (often described by the early chroniclers in connection with the Inca) or another seat - like that preserved at the summit of the Vilcashuaman ushnu, rather than sitting directly on the structure itself. Alternatively there may be an error of translation. I noted in an earlier translation of Cieza de Leon (that of Sir Clements Markham [1883]) that the passage does not mention the term ushnu at all, in its place simply saying the governor was given 'other priviledges which he highly appreciated', perhaps the passage is difficult to translate accurately.

Archaeologically all provincial ushnu are made up of at least one large platform, and are often constructed of several platforms stacked in decreasing size on on top of the other. A staircase or ramp is used to access the top platform from the plaza.

Appearance - Upright Component
One author describes what was possibly an upright component to the ushnu, though this description is vague ‘There is another sacred place called ushnu...They were in the shape of a ninepin and made of different kinds of stone or of gold or silver. To all they constructed buildings, made like towers of beautiful masonary’ [Albornoz 1582 (1990)]. It is also possible Guaman Poma illustrates such an upright directly behind the figure of the seated Inca in both his drawings of ushnu, where a rounded rectangle is drawn just above the figures shoulders and blocks out the background figures. An alternative explanation is that Guaman Poma has illustrated the back of a stone throne, like that preserved on the summit of the ushnu at Vilcashuaman.

Another illustration of a possible upright (which I believe has never been shown before in connection with the ushnu) is from an 18th century oil painting and shows what I believe is an ushnu incorportating an upright. The painting is set in Cajamarca, and it is almost certain the ushnu there was destroyed before the artist who did this painting saw it, but it is possible it is based on another provincial ushnu that the artist was familiar with, or description of such a structure, that no longer exists.

Recently I also became aware of one possible example of a provincial ushnu where an upright has been preserved. Meddens describes such an ushnu at the site of Tajra Chullo in the Department of Cuzco. He identifies the structure as an ushnu which he says 'consists of a rectangular truncated pyramid with two levels, with a large monolith placed on top...The latter consists of a natural elongated boulder placed on end, on a small stone pedestal. Its appearance is somewhat zoomorphic in shape, resembling a guinea pig....This platform too is located along one side of a large open space or plaza [Meddens 1997].

Appearance - Basin Component
A ritual basin set in the middle of the ushnu platform and full of stones is described by Betanzos [1557 (1996)]. Another basin shaped like a 'baptismal font' is described in connection with the Vilcashuaman ushnu, though it is not clear whether it was once located on the ushnu itself, or somewhere near by [Cieza de Leon 1553-4 (1976)].

Archaeologically a basinlike structure was found on the top platform of an ushnu at Inkawasi [Hyslop 1990]. The ushnu at Aypate also appears to have something on the top platform, which is possibly a basin (the quality of the photo and map I have access to is too poor to be certain). Hyslop [1990] also noted 'a hint that a drain may have been placed on the top of the Huanuco Pampa and Pumpu' ushnu, though disturbance by treasure hunters makes it impossible to be certain.

Happily, unlike the Cuzco ushnu, many provincial ushnu have survived into the modern age. It is, however, difficult to establish if any ushnu have survived untouched. Many were probably looted by the Spanish (or later treasure hunters) searching for gold within or under the structures. Cieza de Leon describes this for the Vilcashuaman ushnu [Cieza de Leon 1553-4 (1976)]. We also know that ushnu were a target for Spanish priests due to their associations with worship of the Sun and Inca [Hyslop 1990]. This destruction may explain why some of the features we might expect to find associated with ushnu (basins and possibly upright stones) have been rarely found, or not found at all at surviving provincial ushnu sites. Only further investigation of more ushnu may provide more definite answers as to whether these features existed for some or all ushnu.

Authors overall definition of provincial ushnu
Provincial ushnu were large platformed structures located in the plazas of Incan settlements throughout the former Incan empire and whose top was accessed via a staircase or ramp. It is likely that most or all ushnu contained a ritual basin which was located either on the ushnu top or adjacently in the plaza, and is it possible that some may have included an upright component. The function of the provincial ushnu was as a throne or seat for the Inca (or his representative), as a site to deal with provincial subjects, receive their homage, perform sacrifices (especially to the Sun god), conduct military reviews and dispense justice. In short it was both a symbol and a location to demonstrate the Incas political, religious and military power.

Archaeological remains
The following are a selection of photographs of surviving ushnu from different provinicial centres. There are many more sites where ushnu can still be found and visited that I have not shown (John Hyslop [1990] gives the best overall gazetter for those who are interested).

Above left - ushnu at Vilcashuaman, the finest of the surviving ushnu in terms of stone work. On the top platform there is a stone 'throne' still in place.
Above fight - ushnu at Huanuco Pampa, the largest surviving ushnu. Also built of fine 'Cuzco-style' stonework, the entrance way to the top platform has pumas carved into the masonary.

Top left - ushnu made of rougher stonework at Aypate. Some sort of additional feature is preserved at its summit.
Top right - ushnu at Curamba. Apparently it has been built over a cave in the bedrock below the stucture.

Above - ushnu at Shincal, Catamarca, Argentina. This shows how even distant Incan settlements right at the edge of the empire still used imperial structures like the ushnu. Recently this platform was excavated and 'much pottery, including Inka and Inka related wares, coca leaves, bronze artifacts, food remains, such as maize, peanuts and camelid bone' were found [Farrington and Raffino 1996].

Above left - ushnu at Tambo Colorado. Not the ramp to access the top platform.
Above right - ruined ushnu at Pachacamac near Lima, note in the background the polychrome temple of Pachacamac (above the ushnu) and the Incan stepped Sun Temple (top right of picture).
Both ushnu are contructed of adobes.

Link to the next post in the series -

Appendix 1 - When is an ushnu not an ushnu?
When I first started to research provincial ushnu I found a large number of references to ushnu that on reflection, do not meet the criteria I have developed - that is that provincial ushnu are platformed structures reached by a staircase or ramp, located in the plazas of Incan settlements and used for ritual and civil functions.

Most of these references are to rectangular platformed structures that are located at Incan sites, but not situated in the settlements plaza (for example Hemming describes such an 'ushnu' at Pisaq [1982], Thomson at Llactapata [2006], Reinhard near the summit of Quehar [2005], and Wright et al at Tipon [2006]). These authors and others tend to use the term 'ushnu' for all Incan platformed structures whether they are located in plazas or not, or whether or not they share other characteristics of provincial ushnu (as I described above) - such as stairways or ramps.

Whilst I am happy to acknowledge that such platforms do exist and were the site for rituals, as they are not located in plazas or do not stairways or ramps giving access to their top levels it is hard to see how they could fufill all the functions that most early authors associate with the definition of an ushnu - that is a platform used at large public gatherings in the settlements plaza designed to be accessible by the Inca or his representative.

Ushnu have also been described by several authors including Hyslop [1990] as being located in Incan forts north of Quito, such as Pucara de Rumicucho. Many of these forts are found near to one another in this part of the former Incan empire, for example those at Pambamarca, most with a raised platform assessed by a ramp located at their centre. In shape these do resemble ushnu but the presense of such platforms suggests to me more that the platform shape was one commonly utilised by the Inca for a variety of functions, perhaps as a review stand or look out or tower in this case, rather than assuming all such platforms must by definition be ushnu.

Finally, Gasparini and Margolies suggest that many Incan structures were considered ushnu - 'a simple stone or a structure, an altar or a throne' [1980]. They suggest the 'throne of the Inca' opposite the fortress of Sacsahuaman and the 'Intiwatana' stone at Machu Picchu could be ushnu. Again I feel there are good reasons to suggest this is not the case. Both those structures show us again that the Inca commonly used shapes that incorporated shelves or platforms, and the 'Intiwatana' stone even incorporates a pillar, giving us a possible idea of what the Cuzco ushnu could have looked like. However does this mean that every platformed or shelve shaped stone in the Incan empire was by definition an ushnu?

My feeling is that the term 'ushnu' is being overused by such authors (based on the documentary evidence presented above) and should be restricted to platformed structures located in the plazas of Incan settlements large enough for the Inca (or his representative) to sit on (and in centres outside of Cuzco reached by a stairway or ramp). Other platformed structures which do not fit this criteria may have shared some of the ushnus functions, but by my definition are not ushnu.

Image Credits
Guaman Pomas two drawings of ushnu - Gasparini and Margolies [1980]

Section of oil painting - Pease [2005?]. The painting is titled 'The Beheading of Don Juan Atahuallpa in Cajamarca' by an anonymous painter, and hangs in the Museo Inka in Cuzco

Vilcashuaman ushnu and Huanuco ushnu -

Aypate ushnu -

Curamba ushnu -

Shincal ushnu -

Tambo Colorado ushnu -

Pachacamac ushnu -


Albornoz, Cristobal de - in Hyslop [1990]

Anonymous Jesuit - in Gasparini and Margolies [1980]

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Carvajal, Franciso - in Hemming and Ranney [1982]

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Murua, Martin de - in Hemming [1974]

Morris, Craig. The Architecture of Tahuantinsuyo in the volume The Incas, Art and Symbol, 2005(?). Banco de Credito del Peru

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Pino Jose Luis M. El ushnu y la organizacion espacial astronomica en la sierra central del Chinchaysuyu, 2005. Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos

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Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamayhua, Juan de - in Hyslop [1990]

Thomson, Hugh. Cochineal Red. 2006, Weidenfeld and Nicolson

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Xerez, Francisco de - in Zarate [1968]

Zarate, Agustin de. The Discovery and Conquest of Peru supplemented by Eyewitness Accounts. 1968, Penguin

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