Ritual and architecture in the Titicaca Basin: The development of the sunken court complex in the formative period

Amanda Beth Cohen
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles
July, 2010


Ritual architecture commonly developed in conjunction with sociopolitical complexity in early village societies. One explanation that has been offered is that architecture served a social integrative function, and may have facilitated the social processes involved in establishing leadership, hierarchy, and other forms of higher-level social organization. This dissertation applies the theory of ritualization to the study of ritual architecture and increasing complexity. "Ritualization" refers to the behavior of individuals, and the extent to which ritual penetrates and informs various aspects of society. In this perspective, ritual and secular are considered as two poles of a continuum, along which all human social action may be arrayed. Human behavior becomes "ritualized" when it is self-consciously set apart from the realm of quotidian activity. This "setting apart" may be effected through means as diverse as habits of speech, specialized dress, or, most importantly for my purposes, specialized architecture. Ritual architecture, and the activities that take place within it, can serve as a gross indication of the degree of ritualization in a given society; the degree to which sacred and profane have diverged.
This dissertation applies this theoretical perspective to the sunken court complex of the Titicaca Basin. Previous studies have shown the Formative Period in the Titicaca Basin to be a critical period in the evolution of sociopolitical complexity. An important Formative Period development, related to these changes, was the emergence of a regional religious tradition Referred to by specialists as the Yaya-Mama Religious Tradition, this constellation of specialized artifactual and architectural forms remains poorly understood. Excavations by myself at the site of Huatacoa in the Department of Puno, Peru have revealed three superimposed sunken court structures, together with clear evidence for associated ceremonial activities such as in situ burning and dedicatory offerings of ceramic vessels and human bodies. My dissertation monitors the process of ritualization through the categorization of architectural features and ritual activities through the three-stage architectural sequence at Huatacoa. These data are considered together with excavation data from contemporaneous sites in the Titicaca Basin where sunken courts have been excavated, to verify the importance of the process of ritualization in the development of sociopolitical complexity.