Stonehenge makeover: More English countryside, less tourist kitsch

Stonehenge has a new visitor center 1.5 miles away from the actual stones. No longer will 1 million tourists a year be able to drive past Stonehenge in their cars. Now visitors must take walking tours and a schedule shuttle bus.

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 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) 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, 80 miles (130 kilometers) 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 27 million pound ($44 million) renovation was funded partly through donations and partly by a levy on profits of Britain's national lottery.

The admission charge has almost doubled, from 8 pounds ($13) to 14.90 pounds ($24) for an adult. There is the requisite modern cafeteria and a large gift shop, where visitors can buy Stonehenge jam, chocolate, baseball caps, mouse pads and fridge magnets, as well as "Stonehenge Rocks" T-shirts.

The commercialism is isolated from the monument, which retains its eternal mystery.

Stonehenge was built in three phases between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C. Archaeologists agree it was a temple — but to what gods, and exactly how it was used, remains unclear.

Recent research suggests the site may have started as a giant burial ground for elite families. Archaeologists have found the remains of dozens of cremated bodies from about 3000 B.C. whose location was marked by bluestones.

Stones for the second Stonehenge, much of which still stands, were brought from up to 175 miles (280 kilometers) away. Construction continued for centuries, and the site may have been a temple for Druid worship, a giant astronomical calendar or a place of healing.

Evidence suggests large crowds gathered at Stonehenge for the summer and winter solstices, a tradition that continues today. Thousands of self-styled Druids, pagans and New Age revelers are due to gather for the winter solstice on Saturday, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

Senior curator Sara Lunt said there are still major discoveries to be made — more than half the site remains unexcavated. But the original purpose of Stonehenge may remain a mystery.

"We know there was a big idea" behind Stonehenge and other stone circles built across the British Isles in the Neolithic period, she said. But "what the spiritual dimension of this idea is — that is the key, and that is what we can't get."

"We still have no way of replicating a Neolithic mind. We don't have the Neolithic voice in our ear.

"We don't know the heart of it — and that's a good thing. That gives people work to do."

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