Inca Architecture

inca architecture

Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911, wrote:

As we study their architecture we see that it is marked by good proportions and symmetrical arrangement as well as by massiveness and solidity. Some of their temples and palaces were built of carefully selected ashlars of white granite. The lower tiers of a wall are made of larger blocks than the upper. This gives it a look of massive security. The upper courses, gradually decreasing in size, lend grace and dignity to the structure. Since instruments of precision were lacking, everything had to be done by the trained eye of the artistic architect. The result is softer and much more pleasing than that of the mathematically correct walls of our world. We must admit that they were superb stone masons. Everyone who visits Machu Picchu will agree to that.

In the city of Cuzco, as well as in other well-known Inca towns, the walls of temples and palaces are not perpendicular but slope slightly inward. They are of so-called Egyptian style, being narrower at the top that at the bottom.

If one visits outlying places one finds story-and-a-half houses with gable ends. They seem to be characteristic of structures which were built not very long before the Spanish Conquest. Usually on the outside of each gable end may be seen a row of roughly cylindrical blocks or stone pegs bonded into the wall and projecting a foot or so from its surface. At first sight one might suppose this characteristic feature of Inca architecture to be merely ornamental, since these stone pegs suggest the idea of being the petrified ends of wooden beams and purlins. This pleasant theory of wooden origin, reminiscent of Doric architecture, appears to be incorrect. In the gable ends of some modern Indian huts wooden pegs similarly placed are used as points to which the thatched roof is tied. It would appear, therefore, that the stone pegs bonded into the Inca gables were not merely ornamental but real pegs serving a useful purpose.

The Incas did not use tiles or shingles to cover their roofs, but had to depend on thatch made of grass or bushes. The thatch was tied to the purlins and was kept from blowing away by being tied to the ends of the projecting roof pegs while the purlins themselves were fastened to the gables by being tied to the eye-bonders.

So far as I have been able to learn, this method of supporting a thatched roof on a sloping gable was invented and perfected by the Incas and has never been used in any other part of the world. Possibly its invention was due to the fact that the plateau where Inca architecture flourished is treeless and wind-swept. Incidentally, the absence of trees in the temperate valleys of the Peruvian highlands was not due to the altitude because I found primeval forest growing at 15,000 feet in the more inaccessible parts of the

Cordillera Vilcabamba.

The doors of Inca houses were usually high enough so that the tallest Peruvian could enter comfortably without bumping his head. As in ancient Egypt, the bottom of the door is wider than the top. Lintels were sometimes of wood if the buildings were constructed near a forested region but otherwise were composed of two or three long blocks of stone.

Their houses were frequently arranged around a court-yard so as to form a compound as in the Fart East. To this pound there was usually but one entrance. Sometimes the facade of the gateway had a re-entrant angle as though the doorway had been let into the back of a large niche. Entrances to compounds were furnished with the means of fastening a bar across the inside of the door. Stone cylinders or pegs, which I have called bar-holds, were keyed into the gateposts during their construction. Sometimes the bar-holds were anchored into the wall by being set into a cavity cut out of one of the larger blocks of the gatepost. It was feasible to lash a bar to the bar-holds which were able to resist at least as much pressure as the cross-bar which was lashed to it.

The practice of placing only a little stick across the door was made possible in part by the fact that among the Incas private property of individuals was limited to a few personal possessions, dishes, shawl pins, cooking utensils, and clothing. Under a benevolent despotism like that of the Incas where no one was allowed to go hungry or naked, where everything of importance belonged to the ruler, there was no object in attempting to acquire the personal possessions of others, nor was there any incentive to accumulate anything which was not in daily use.

The use of bar-locks, eye-bonders, and roof-pegs by the Incas is an evidence of inventive genius which testifies to long occupancy in the highlands. Those devices are not found in Asia or Europe. The were not borrowed or imported. They were autochthonous.

So far as we know there was no furniture in the houses of the Incas. They used neither chairs nor tables but sat on the ground or on a pile of blankets made from the wool of the llama or alpaca. The place of furniture was taken by a series of niches arranged symmetrically in the walls.

Inca architects were careful about drainage and guarded against the accumulation of ground water wherever it was not wanted. Small channels or conduits were constructed under their storehouses and under the walls of courtyards wherever pools were likely to collect.


‘Lost City of the Incas, The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders’ by Hiram Bingham

The American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911.

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu

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Category: Architecture

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