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Machu Picchu, Inca Pachacuti’s Sacred City; A multiple ritual, ceremonial and administrative center.

The intihuantana at Machu Picchu replicates Huayna Picchu

Introduction and acknowledgments

After many visits to Machu Picchu I was given an opportunity in 2003 to undertake an in-depth study of the site through a generous grant from Microsoft. Earlier that year, I had completed a Royal Geographical Society supported expedition with British Inca researcher, Hugh Thomson, American archeo-astronomer Kim Malville and a field team led by the Australian explorer, John Leivers in which we re-discovered and surveyed the large ceremonial complex of Llactapata. We arrived at Machu Picchu with new data and perspective from investigations of these important associated sites.

Kim contributes with extensive knowledge of ethno-astronomy beyond my more terrestrial training. Hugh’s research on Hiram Bingham and the early investigations at Machu Picchu inspired and fueled our interest.

Later, in September of 2005, I was contracted by the BBC to help film an episode of a television series called "Journeys from the Center of the Earth". The focus is how geology, weather and topographical elements shaped ancient cultures. I was the on-camera authority along with talented geologist host, Iain Stewart. Bad weather and frequent breaks from filming allowed time for additional investigation at Machu Picchu. I am greatly indebted to BBC producer/director Arif Nurmohamed and his terrific production team for allowing me this opportunity.

The noted Dutch Anthropologist R. Tom Zuidema also visited Machu Picchu and Llactapata with Kim and I that year, significantly contributing to this paper and our ongoing investigations. I learned more about the Inca from Tom in our two weeks together than I did in years of graduate school. And of course…we owe all to the generous support of John Hemming and the Royal Geographical Society.

Working from the excellent Wright-Valencia Machu Picchu site map and Johan Reinhard’s Machu Picchu The Sacred Center, We carefully re-examined the main groups conjuntos, compounds canchas, shrines huacas, passageways and stones. Our observation is that every feature or construction appears to be planned and aligned with purpose, leaving nothing to chance.

David Dearborn, Reinhard and others have identified structures, building groups and features orientated to focus upon, point to or replicate geographical features, solar alignment and other astronomical phenomena (Dearborn 1987, Reinhard 2002). We have further identified features and groups seemingly associated with solstice alignment and/or the surrounding mountains, Huayna Picchu, Cerro Machu Picchu, Yanatin, San Miguel, Cerro Putucusi and the Llactapata Ridge.

This paper is best read with The Machu Picchu Guide Book in hand and is prepared as a summary of data and interpretations building upon the research and studies of many others. Personal communication with Hugh Thomson, Kenneth and Ruth Wright and Johan Reinhard was most helpful. Machu Picchu feature designations are from Ruth Wright, Kenneth Wright and Alfredo Valencia. John leivers, who always leads the way in the field, shared his informed observations. British Consul and bird authority Barry Walker makes the logistics work for all of our expeditions. British explorer-publisher, Nicholas Asheshov gets us there in style on his Sacred Valley Railroad.

With great thanks to these friends and colleagues…Gary Ziegler, Cusco August, 2006


1) Inca roads and the Upper Agricultural Area Major Inca roads accessing Machu Picchu from the east, Cusco, Ollantaytambo and west, Llactapata-Vilcabamba meet at a large cleared and wide terraced area north of and outside the main gate (Ziegler, Thomson, Malville. 2003). Three other trails drop down to the river from different sides. A long meeting hall kallanca, Machu Picchu’s largest building is here. The "Guard House" and an associated shaped stone shrine huaca which seems to replicate Cerro Yanatin may represent a special ritual, ceremonial feature similar to the Sacred Rock Group identified by Reinhard and others (Reinhard 2002, Wright-Valencia 2001). The Guard house, designed with one side open, a waynona, is similar to the two buildings that border the Sacred Rock Plaza and probably served a similar ritual purpose.

Interpretation: This was likely a large staging area for llama trains, supplies, labor gangs, workers, warehouse goods and state business coming and going. A ceremonial area located outside the gate with a replication of Cerro Yanatin suggests that Yanatin may have had special importance to travelers along these main routes and to those not allowed inside the inter city.

2) Main Gate and entrance corridor: This impressive gateway frames and focuses attention upon Huayna Picchu. (Reinhard 2002, Wright-Valencia 2000). The walled corridor leads some distance at an angle of 350-170 degrees (m) viewing Huayna Picchu when entering and Machu Picchu Mountain upon exiting. Turning sharply to the right (East), the corridor passes through a second gateway and proceeds, framing/focusing on Cerro Putucusi followed by yet another turn and gateway leading to the Sacred Plaza and heart of the complex. Interpretation:

Focus on principal mountain features dominating Machu Picchu and passage through monumental gates, each defining a new focus, suggest the pathway as a walkway utilized for important processions as well as an ascetic and impressive architectural design for utilitarian passage. First and primary focus upon Huayna Picchu gives added importance to Huayna Picchu. In various cultures around the world sacred architecture has been used to guide the ritual movement of people as well as limiting their field of view. The archaeologist John Fritz (1978) argues that ceremonial structures and city planning are occasionally designed to provide earthly parallels to the cosmos, reinforcing the ideological integration of a society as its social stratification. Only those with access to certain esoteric knowledge, such as the location of sunrise, the presence of a god in a temple or natural topographic feature, or the symbolic meaning of a mountain, could design such structures, thereby confirming their high status in the society. While performing rituals, participants are forced to follow certain pathways and view certain perspectives such as sacred mountains, palaces, or temples. Fritz suggests sites in India and Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest as examples of such ritual architecture. The entrance corridor at Machu Picchu appears to be another excellent example of such architecture and planning. 3) Solstice Alignment: A number of groups and features distributed throughout the site are aligned with the June solstice sunrise azimuth of 65 degrees. Dearborn and others indicate several December solstice alignments (Dearborn 1987, Reinhard 2002). The December solstice sunrise azimuth is 112 degrees with the sun setting at 245 degrees a) Sacred Plaza: The plaza is enclosed on three sides, open to the west with an alignment of 245 degrees. The Temple of the Three Windows forms the easterly side opening on the plaza facing Llactapata and the distant summits of Nevado Pumasillo, a mountain reportedly sacred to the Inca (Reinhard 2002). June solstice sunrise would be seen at 65 degrees from the three windows raising over the distant Cordillera Urubamba. During the December solstice the sun would be seen to set over llactapata and Pumasillo.

b) Sacrisiti Temple: Open on one side, facing Llactapata and Pumasillo at 245 degrees. c) Intihuatana platform: Oriented 65-245 degrees with a shaped replica stone of Huayna Picchu as the central and dominant feature. The rising and setting sun is visible as well as a 360-degree view. The solstice alignment and the importance of solstice ritual to the Inca suggest that this was a primary ceremonial consideration of this central shrine. Reinhard and others note that important mountains lie at cardinal directions from the platform, the most important being Salkantay located directly south at 180 degrees with Veronica to the east. He suggests that the platform was well suited for celestial activities. The hilltop location makes the platform an exceptional place to make astrological observations in association with sacred geography (Reinhard 2002, Ziegler 2001). It is likely that a number of ceremonies and celestial observations were performed here throughout the year. d) Royal Residence: The compound outer walls and buildings are aligned at 65-245 degrees. e) Conjunto 10: Contains a large meeting hall kallanca building and two sets of symmetrical buildings facing on a small plaza or platform open to the east and aligned at 65 degrees. f) Conjunto 15: A compound of high status residence structures with a central walkway facing 65 degrees upon a large shaped replica stone (Undetermined replication...needs study). g) Assorted Features: Several walkways have solstice alignment, which we have not documented. Additional investigation will likely reveal other alignments, orientations.

h) The Intimachy: Reported by Dearborn and others as a December solstice ceremonial feature (Dearborn 1987).

The torreon has a window facing the June solstice sunrrise

I) The Torreon: Popularly called the Temple of the Sun, a shaped stone enclosed within the Torreon is reported to receive a ray of sun light through the east facing window during the June solstice. (Dearborn 1987, Reinhard 2002, Wright-Valencia. 2001). However, the Torreon and its associated buildings-walkways are aligned 350-170 degrees focusing on Huayna and Machu Picchu Mountains. The shaped stone and the architectural alignment suggest that replication and associated mountain worship may have been a primary ceremonial function. 4) Huayna Picchu: a) House of Three Windows: A short distance below the summit, a walkway passes through the only building on the upper portion of the mountain. This house is a typical two story Inca design with internal niches, trapezoidal doorways and a gabled roof set carefully on a leveled platform built out on a filled retaining wall from the near vertical granite slope. Three identical tall windows look out toward the Aobamba-Santa Teresa ridge and the Llactapata sites. The walls and windows are aligned at an azimuth of 230 degrees (m) creating a direct focus-alignment upon the main sectors of Llactapata. (See map figure 2). The Sector II group at Llactapata is aligned to face Huayna Picchu at 50 degrees (the back azimuth of 230). A number of ceremonial features focus on Huayna Picchu (Ziegler, Thomson, Malville 2003). A shaped stone replication resembling the profile of the ridge and it's facing topography sets in front of the left window allowing the viewer to view the distant ridge and it's replication at the same time.

Alignment of windows with Llactapata

Figure 1

Interpretation: The alignment directly toward the Llactapata sites and the shaped replication stone suggest that the house was a shrine huaca focusing on and emphasizing a spiritual importance for Llactapata and its mountain and ridge. This gives strength to recent investigation and interpretation by the Thomson-Ziegler Expedition, May 2003, that the Llactapata complex was in part, an important ceremonial center closely associated with Machu Picchu (Ziegler, Thomson, Malville 2003). b) Huayna Picchu Arrow stone: The highest point of the summit is shaped granite capped by an unusual feature popularly identified as the head of an arrow pointing toward distant Salkantay. From careful examination, We believe that this feature is a replication of Machu Picchu Mountain. (See Reinhard. photo, pg. 44). c) The Temple of the Moon site is a large shelter cave with masonry structures underlying a massive granite capstone, associated small terraces and several small groups of out buildings. The location is well down Huayna Picchu Mountain just above the Urubamba River. Two Inca routes approach the site. One branches off from the trail up Huayna Picchu to descend downward. The other climbs directly up from the cave through very airy, scary cliffs to the summit. Wright indicates that the Inca trail continued down to the river after passing through a high status gateway. This presents yet another route into Machu Picchu. Finely worked granite walls with niches and recesses inside the cave face outward toward the San Miguel ridge. A large shaped stone centered inside appears to replicate the San Miguel ridge and its facing topographic profile when viewed from behind looking outward.

Interpretation: Caves are known to have been important to the Inca, representing sacred places embodied with spiritual powers. (D'Altroy, Poma, Reinhard). The replication of the San Miguel ridge and orientation of the site suggests that a principal ceremonial function may have been a ritual associated with Cerro San Miguel. Reinhard gives importance to Cerro San Miguel as a place to worship sacred geographical features in combination with equinox alignment. Like Huayna Picchu, San Miguel is surrounded on three sides by the spiritually important Urubamba River (Reinhard 2002). The cave may also have represented a symbolic entrance into Huayna Picchu inviting ritual events which could have included a ceremonial passage from Machu Picchu to the summit of Huayna Picchu, down to the cave temple and back by the circular route. Conclusions Machu Picchu before its decline and abandonment appears to have been a complex, busy urban center incorporating different purposes with multiple levels of ceremonial and utilitarian usage. There is no archaeological evidence that Machu Picchu was occupied after the arrival of the European invaders in Cusco in 1533. The recent identification of Llactapata's importance by the Thomson-Ziegler Expedition and a corresponding major road network connecting extensive Inca controlled regions to the west, Vitcos, Choquequirao and the Apurimac, reinforces the idea that Machu Picchu was a spiritual and administrative hub of a network of roads, regional settlements and state controlled commerce as suggested by Ann Kendall and others (Kendall 1988). The large staging area and meeting hall outside the site and a number of internal warehouses qolqas indicate that the site may have been a collecting point for goods arriving from the Vilcabamba to be sent on to the capital or for other distribution. Recent investigations have revealed that numbers of imported workers mitimaes, lived near Choquequirao, Cota Coca and other Vilcabamba sites in small wood-sided and simple stone hut settlements. (Ziegler, 2001-2, Von Kaupp, Lee, personal Communication). A recent study of the Llactapata area indicates that a sizable low status settlement and associated agricultural fields were located within several hours of Machu Picchu on the nearby Aobamba-Santa Teresa Ridge which would have provided a residence pool of laborers (Ziegler, Thomson, Malville 2003). Kendall suggests that the large Patallacta/Cusichaca site east of Machu Picchu may have also served in part as a resident settlement of laborers for Machu Picchu (Kendall.1988) John Rowe convincingly argues that Machu Picchu was built as a royal estate of the Inca Pachacuti as evidenced from a sixteenth century document and other evidence (Rowe 1990). Anthropologists Susan Niles and Maria Rostworowski have demonstrated that some royal estates served as administrative centers for the surrounding region. It is reasonable to assume that Machu Picchu would have served as such as well (Rowe 1990, Niles 1999, Rostworowski 1983). Johan Reinhard compiles compelling evidence that Machu Picchu was located, designed and functioned as a ceremonial center incorporating the site's unique convergence of geographical features, sacred mountains and the Urubamba River with astronomical and cardinal alignments. The alignment of Salkantay, one of the most sacred mountains, with the Pleiades, dark constellations, Milky Way and the Southern Cross is particularly significant at Machu Picchu (Reinhard 2002). The multiplicity of different ceremonial features and groups within the city indicate that it probably hosted a complex schedule of ritual events, celebrations and important gatherings throughout the Inca calendar. The predominance of mountain replication shrines and solstice alignments suggest that the primary spiritual focus at Machu Picchu was mountain worship and the sun. The alignment of several important groups and the focus of the main entrance way upon Huayna Picchu suggest that this mountain was the principal and protectorate deity apu of Machu Picchu. The Intihuatana as a replication of Huayna Picchu and the number of ceremonial features on the mountain itself strengthens the case. The Intihuatana is the central and most important shrine as located on the principal raised platform usnu above the Sacred Plaza and at the highest point on the Intihuatana pyramid. Machu Picchu's design gives great importance to the solstice as evidenced by the number and importance of features with a solstice focus. Additional Observations 2005 Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock Three walled terraces following the contour of the rounded ridgeline descending from Cerro Machu Picchu shape this large, open, leveled area. The shape is roughly triangular, defined by the convergence of the two main roads from the east and west at its point. The back boundary is formed by a long, multiple entrance structure facing Cerro Yanatin, identified as a meeting hall or Kallanca. This is Machu Picchu's largest building. I have previously suggested that the shaped huaca boulder, centerpiece of the area, replicates Cerro Yanatin. (Ziegler 2001). Numbers of small-elongated stones around one foot by 6 inches in size, are seemingly arranged in upright groups around the large shaped huaca. The stones are andesite, limestone and metamorphic rocks carried in from other regions. Some are rounded river shaped rocks. Ruth Wright and Alfredo Valencia write "river rocks symbolically bring the sacred river to the mountain site" (Wright and Valencia 2001). This may have been the case but the diversity of rocks more likely indicates that they were ritual offerings/burdens carried and placed by visitors at a shine requiring this activity upon arrival at Machu Picchu. Modern Quechua travelers carry small stones to the top of mountain passes to leave as offerings (personal observation). Visitors to the Sapa Inca and to the Coricancha in Cusco were reported to have carried burdens. (Garcilaso, Cieza). Travelers left stones at roadside shrines called apachitas. (Poma). We have previously written that the area was likely a large staging area for llama trains, supplies, labor gangs, workers, warehouse goods and state business coming and going. A ceremonial area located outside the gate with a replication of Cerro Yanatin suggests that Yanatin may have had special importance to travelers along these main routes and to those not allowed inside the inter city. Additionally ceremonies may have been held here for lower status workers and neighboring settlements during important calendar events. Supporting this, large amounts of broken pottery have been found here suggesting ritual drinking. (Wright and Valencia 2001). A special kallanca located outside of Cusco served as a sort of a greeting and leaving shrine to travelers coming and going from the city (Zuidema, personal communication). The Kallanca strategically located just outside Machu Picchu at the junction of two main roads may have served a similar purpose. The open sided wayrona structure called the Guard House likely played a role, or served a function, in support of ritual activities here. Other wayronas are located at the Sacred Rock and the Torreon shrine.Facing with apparent focus on Cerro Yanatin, the site layout and its central replica stone strongly suggests that the complex was dedicated to Cerro Yanatin and mountain worship ritual. Perhaps Yanatin would better be called by its local Quechua name Yanati that we will now use. Petrographic observances The base rock at Machu Picchu is primarily a fine grained white-gray granite formed by granules of biotite mica, quartz and light colored orthoclase feldspar eroding from an exposed 250 million year old batholith pluton. This material varies in consistency and crystal size. The finest material was selected as building stone for the most important buildings and walls. Occasional pieces of a green chloritic shist seem to be local. Bingham describes small disks made of the material found in excavations. The material apparently came from below a cliff of Machu Picchu Mountain [Bingham 1952]. The Australian anthropologist/explorer John leivers has recently located the site (personal communication) Imported rock: Other rock types seem to have been imported such as many of the stones deposited at the Ceremonial Rock [Yanati shrine]. Several blocks of reddish ryolite may have come from Ollantaytambo. Bingham reported an area of imported obsidian pebbles. The entranceway to the Torreon Compound has a black slate cornice overhead. Other pieces of slate are seen scattered in buildings near the Main Gate. Interior pegs at the wayrona near the Torreon are made from imported diorite.

Intihuatana The Intihuatana platform has a two-meter plus high wall structure on the south side with an entranceway [now partially filled] and remains of a wall on the east. The east wall is gone but the foundation is evident. The alignment indicated by the perpendicular from the east wall and the parallel of the south wall, creates a sight line angle of 245 degrees from the open west side to the main sections of llactapata and the main summit of Nevado Pumasillo on the far horizon [December solstice setting azimuth]. Shaped stones on the walkway up from the south and the Sacred Plaza seem to replicate the eastern horizon representing Cerros Yanati and Putucusi. The main huaca stone Intihuatana, viewed from the southern approaching steps, strongly appears to replicate Huayna Picchu which imposingly dominates the northern view. [noted by Reinhard, Wright and others]. Northern Plaza Large in situ boulders on the western edge of this large plaza have been shaped. Several are enclosed by walled platforms. They seem to replicate Cerro Machu Picchu and associated ridges when viewed from the north. Torreon The shaped huaca stone, enclosed by this unusual D shaped building was likely a replication stone and altar for associated rituals, llama sacrifice and chicha offering. The important June Pleiades raising (Zuidema 1982) and the solstice could have been viewed from the east-facing window but the alignment is not precise, off some degrees from the angle of other site solstice features. It does however present a centered view of the early morning raise of the Pleiades during late May and June. Dearborn and others note that a cord affixed at the window would cast a shadow on a carved groove on the altar during the June solstice thereby establishing the Torreon as a sun shrine. This conclusion seems a reach in view of Inca design preciseness. More likely, the window would have been aligned at the correct angle if this had been the intent (Dearborn and White 1989). However, The Royal Mausoleum, a cave with high status ritual features, internal masonry with full size niches, a stepped motif and shaped, usnu-like stone, forms the lower section of the large granite outcrop that the Torreon sits on. The outfacing alignment of 65 Degrees is precisely toward the June solstice sunrise. This suggests sun ritual as a primary function. Caves are known to have had special ritual significance themselves. (D'Altroy 2003, Reinhard 2002] This superbly crafted shrine represents the finest monumental construction in the western or upper hanan sector of Machu Picchu below the Sacred Plaza group. It is accessed directly from the neighboring, high status compound kancha, the Royal Residence, Machu Picchu's most important residential group. This suggests that the cave may have been a private shrine established for the Inca or highly privileged visitors when at residence next door. The Sacred Plaza: Temple of the Three Windows and the Principal Temple Wright and Valencia write that the two temples at the Sacred Plaza were not completed: The Principal Temple was not finished because the foundation settled, causing the heavy wall to subside during construction. The builders then abandoned construction. The nearby Temple of the Three Windows was also unfinished. A large stone intended for the temple was left in transit nearby. [Wright and Valencia 2000} Iain Stewart located what appears to be several localized fault zones with some indicated slippage eastward from the Sacred Plaza and Intihantana hill. Several structures show some degree of slippage since their construction. We hope to explore this topic together in another paper. I believe that subsidence at the Principal Temple occurred after the Inca had abandoned Machu Picchu. The Inca builders at the site were superb engineers [Wright and Valencia 2000]. This was a most important ceremonial structure, which would have had highest priority. If the wall had settled during construction, the builders would have reinforced the foundation and reconstructed the wall. It seems unlikely that two important temples would have been left uncompleted during the decades of activity and ongoing construction indicated by the archaeological record. At some Inca sites, structures were later modified or removed and replaced by new building. Cusco was rebuild by the Inca Pacachuti. The principal temple at Ollantaytambo was dismantled and in the process of being rebuilt when abandoned [Cieza, Garcilaso, Protzen 1993]. We suggest that the two Machu Picchu temples were either, upgrade replacements for earlier structures at the Sacred Plaza, or new additions, planned by a later generation of Inca designers. Construction began at a late date. The temples were under construction and not completed when the empire fell apart in 1524. Epidemic disease swept the empire resulting in the death of the ruling Inca Huayna Capac. Devastating wars of succession soon followed setting the stage for abandonment of state projects and the Spanish conquest in 1533. A Summary of Conclusions 1] The large terraced area outside the main gate was a staging area for entering/leaving Machu Picchu, roadside shrine and gathering place for coming and going on the Inca road. It was dedicated to the mountain Yanatin. Yanati. Celebrations and special events were held here for visitors not allowed inside the city. 2] An important function of the Intihuatana was observation and ritual during the December solstice 3] Large boulders along the west edge of the North Plaza are shaped to replicate Machu Picchu Mountain. 4] The Torreon was likely dedicated to Pleiades observation/ritual and mountain worship. The Royal Mausoleum cave was a private royal shrine associated with the June solstice. 5] The Principal Temple was under construction when Machu Picchu was abandoned. Slippage of a wall occurred after abandonment. 6] The Temple of Three Windows was also under construction when abandoned. Construction of both Temples at the Sacred Plaza was started late in Machu Picchu's development. 7] A series of small stress faults along the ridge below the Sacred Plaza have allowed slight slippage and settlement of some walls to the east


Gary Ziegler is a field archaeologist with a geology background, mountaineer and explorer who has spend a lifetime finding and studying remote Inca sites in the Vilcabamba range of Peru’s Southern Andes. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Explorers Club. He has featured in documentary films for the BBC, Discovery Channel, Science and History Channels. In 2013, he was awarded the title “Distinguished Lecturer” at NASA’s Marshal Space Center. He has taught at Colorado College and Peru’s national university, San Marcos. His home base is 4000 acre Bear Basin Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Southern Colorado’s Custer County where he is former County Sheriff and a founder of the search and rescue unit.

He can be contacted at: 719 7834-2076

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