STONEHENGE, ENGLAND – After thousands of years, Stonehenge has had a makeover. But visitors may initially feel something is missing: the prehistoric monument itself.
Tourists now arrive at a gleaming new timber-and-glass visitor center some 2.4 km from Stonehenge. The famous stone circle tucked into the rolling green landscape is nowhere to be seen.
It’s a teasing introduction to the site, where new facilities and landscaping are designed to “restore the dignity” of Stonehenge, and transform the way more than 1 million visitors a year see it.
Simon Thurley, who heads governing body English Heritage, said visitors will now be able to see the stones “free from the clutter and rubbish” that have been built up around them.
On Tuesday, journalists and English Heritage members were given a preview of the new center, which houses a 360-degree Cinerama-style “virtual tour” of the monument, along with an extensive exhibition about the Neolithic Britons who built Stonehenge starting 5,000 years ago.
When the building opens to the public on Wednesday, workers will dismantle the old ticket office and other nondescript structures clustered beside the monument. A busy road that ferried thousands of cars a day past the stones is being closed and grassed over.
The idea is to return Stonehenge, 130 km southwest of London, to its rural landscape. Visitors will be bussed to the stones on a special shuttle. Or they can walk, exploring paths and an ancient processional approach route that for years has been cut in half by asphalt.
Even the new visitor building — two single-story blocks, one of glass and one of timber, under an undulating roof — is designed to fit unobtrusively into the landscape.
“If people don’t remember it when they go home, but they remember the monument, that won’t be a bad thing,” said architect Stephen Quinlan.
Inside, the exhibition seeks to show the monument’s prehistoric creators to be sophisticated people who raised pigs and hunted, gathered from far and wide for feasts — and built this remarkable, mysterious monument.
The face of one 5,000-year-old local resident has been reconstructed from his skull by Oscar Nilsson, a forensic sculptor. He had good teeth and handsome features, in a shaggy, prehistoric kind of way.
“The women here at English Heritage are very fond of him,” Nilsson said.
All this comes at a price: The admission charge has almost doubled, from £8 ($13) to £14.90 ($24) for an adult.