Interpreting the meaning of ritual spaces: The temple complex of Pumapunku, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Alexei N Vranich, University of Pennsylvania


The built environment embodies symbolic messages and helps transform human activity into meaningful experience. Anthropological archaeologists often study buildings from a materialist perspective, examining their functions, the labor investment they required, or their role in the political economy; they generally ignore important symbolic and phenomenological aspects of the built environment. This investigation addresses this lacuna through an examination of the Temple Complex of Pumapunku, one of the largest and most important ritual precincts in the pre-Columbian city of Tiwanaku. Architectural analysis of data from detailed mapping and selective excavation shows that the Pumapunku. Complex is an extensive integrated compound consisting of platforms, buildings, plazas, courtyards, and stairways, measuring half a kilometer in length. Although this complex was modified several times, its formal plan remained unchanged. Two interpretive approaches are used to understand the experience and meaning of the temple complex. The first is a phenomenological approach. The architectural spaces are interpreted from the point of view of a pilgrim walking through the complex, examining the physical and emotional reactions he or she might have experienced. The Pumapunku Complex was designed to funnel groups of people across specially constructed architectural spaces, and to display a series of symbolically important and ritually charged images and activities. The pilgrim was thus exposed to the cosmological meanings imbedded in the architecture of the compound and indoctrinated into important aspects of Tiwanaku religion. The second interpretive approach is structuralist. A model of the axis mundi is developed based on historical and archaeological evidence of a specific architectural form used by the Inka. The material correlates of this model are compared to the Pumapunku Complex, and analysis suggests that the temple complex is an architectural representation of the center of the Andean world. Together the two complementary approaches provide a better understanding of the purpose and meaning of this complex to the people who built it and participated in rituals within it.

Subject Area

Archaeology|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Vranich, Alexei N, "Interpreting the meaning of ritual spaces: The temple complex of Pumapunku, Tiwanaku, Bolivia" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9926211.